Extensive research effort tackles methane leaks

Better information enables data-driven solutions to dangerous climate risk

Methane monitoring tools can help detect leaks. This Southwestern Energy facility in Arkansas uses them.

John Rae

Until recently, little was known about exactly where and how much methane was emitted during oil and gas activities.

Meanwhile, national natural gas production has been booming, with few regulations to keep air pollutants like methane in check.

How significant are these emissions to the climate, considering methane's potent impact as a greenhouse gas?

Filling a problematic data gap

In 2012, we set out to better answer this question by launching our largest research project to date: A series of 16 independent, rigorously executed projects [PDF] designed to find out how much and from where methane is escaping into the atmosphere across the entire supply chain.

Now, as study results start to emerge, we're learning there's little time to waste if we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change—yet practical, cost-effective solutions are possible now.

Collaboration has been critical

The studies examine all areas that make up the natural gas supply chain: production; gathering lines and processing facilities; long-distance pipelines, storage, and local distribution; as well as some end users using natural gas, commercial trucks and refueling stations.

An investigation of this unprecedented magnitude required collaboration with almost 100 research and industry experts.

Nearly every prominent researcher who's working on this issue is involved.

Drew Nelson EDF Senior Manager, Natural Gas

No one tool is perfect

Measuring methane—an odorless, colorless gas that dissipates quickly—is challenging work.

And results can vary, depending on the measurement tools used, the specific conditions where research is done and the scientific assumptions made. This all adds up to a high degree of variance in reported leak rates. Our series was designed to help combine, compare or contrast methods to fuel precision, instead of confusion.

Aerial versus on the ground

For example, several studies use innovative aerial measurements taken by specially instrumented aircraft equipped with methane sensors. These "top-down" readings augment traditional "bottom-up" readings, or measurements taken directly at the potential emission source, often at ground level.

Bottom-up measurements are essential to identifying specific sources of methane pollution, but given the complexity and breadth of the natural gas supply in the U.S., it’s not possible to measure all sources directly.

Top-down readings provide a snapshot of emissions over a whole region, lending important insights to the shape of emissions, while bottom-up adds the finer-grain details inside the shape.

Yet, like bottom-up tools, top-down measurements have limitations. They capture unrelated methane sources, such as landfills or wetlands, which then must be subtracted from the overall emissions data.

Together, these two methods provide greater insight and certainty than either method alone.

Mark Brownstein EDF Associate VP Climate & Energy

    Policy makers take notice

    Our studies and others are helping drive important policy changes. In 2014:

    • The state of Colorado adopted a set of air regulations, the first in the nation to directly address methane pollution. 
    • The Obama Administration released a comprehensive methane strategy that may lead to federal regulation.
    • U.S. Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced the 2014 Super Pollutants Act. It calls for a new task force to oversee the reduction of super-charged pollutants like methane.

    "There is no excuse for us to allow natural gas to be lost through leaks, and by having better data, we can craft targeted policies to prioritize fixing the system in a highly effective way," Brownstein said.

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    Google Street View car

    Recent findings

    • Who: EDF, Google Earth Outreach and Colorado State University
    • What: Find a faster, cheaper way to assess climate-damaging methane leaks in neighborhoods
    • How: Collect data using vehicles mounted with air quality sensors, and categorize environmental risk 

    Explore the maps »

    Our natural gas experts

    Mark Brownstein Mark Brownstein Associate VP, Climate & Energy Contact Mark

    Drew Nelson Drew Nelson Senior Manager, Natural Gas envelopeContact Drew

    Ramon Alvarez Ramon Alvarez Senior Scientist Contact Ramon

    Steve Hamburg Steve Hamburg Chief Scientist Contact Steve

    Media contacts

    In-depth resources

    Detailed questions and answers about other studies:

    Also see the full list of scientists involved in the series of studies