How much methane is lost into the air?
Academics, environmentalists and industry team up to collect better data
Photo credit: John Rae
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a powerful, short-lived greenhouse gas. Over the first 20 years after it is released, it is 84 to 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2), the main contributor to man-made climate change, according to new projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It can cause major climate damage in little time.
The largest single source of methane emissions is the vast energy infrastructure — the wells, pipelines and storage facilities — that supply the U.S. with natural gas.
Closing the data gap
To date, we've lacked a clear picture of methane emissions across the entire natural gas system, with estimates ranging from 1% to 8% of total produced U.S. natural gas. A range that wide leaves big questions about how much harm they cause and the best way to reduce emissions.
In 2012, we initiated a series of studies with academic and industry partners to better understand exactly how much and from where emissions are released at various points along the supply chain. This is critical information needed to design practices and policy solutions to reduce methane emissions.
More than 90 universities, research facilities and natural gas companies are working together on these studies. Data is being collected in five core areas: production, gathering lines and processing facilities, long-distance pipelines and storage, local distribution and commercial trucks and refueling stations. The initiative includes 16 independent projects, all expected to be completed by end of 2014.
Ensuring scientific integrity
Measuring methane — an odorless, colorless gas that dissipates quickly — is challenging work. It takes more than one approach to achieve solid results. These studies are using a variety of scientific methods to compare and contrast results.
Equal to having strong data quality is having a trustworthy process. A key element baked into this overall series is the ability to ensure scientific integrity. Credible and independent advisors serve on Scientific Advisory Panels, reviewing study procedures, results and conclusions. An additional independent review is conducted by the scientific journal to which the study is submitted for publication.
Gathering facts to find solutions
We're developing a solid understanding of the policies and practices necessary to minimize methane emissions. And this broad research effort is building a body of empirical data to help inform both policy and scientific discussions.
Projects under way include those being led by University of Texas, Washington State University, West Virginia University and two studies with Colorado State University — one focused on gathering and processing and another on transmission and storage. The first study published in this series on natural gas production appeared in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.
"In the absence of robust data, a lot of well-intentioned work could lead to poor outcomes," says EDF Chief Scientist Steve Hamburg. "We took the steps required — invested in good science and designed a rigorous process — to ensure that we could find effective solutions to meet the environmental challenges that we face today."