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 August 2015, the EPA proposed the first rule to directly limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations, unlocking a new opportunity to reduce climate pollution.
    • In 2014, the state of Colorado adopted a set of air regulations, the first in the nation to directly address methane pollution. 
    • 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.

    Help drive progress: During the public comment period, make sure the EPA hears strong support to reduce methane pollution.

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    Recent findings

    • Barnett Study

      July 2015

      Scientists estimated regional and facility-level methane emissions in the Texas Barnett Shale, collecting data using aircraft, vehicular, and other ground-based platforms. Researchers estimate regional methane emissions are 50 percent higher than estimates based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory. Learn more »

    • Local Distribution Study

      March 2015

      The study shows that methane emissions from local natural gas distribution systems are significant, especially in regions such as the Northeast where distribution infrastructure is older, but that progress is being made in reducing emissions from these systems, mainly through regulation and investment by utilities. Learn more »

    • Gathering and Processing Study

      February 2015

      Initial findings from the measurement report show wide variations in the amount of methane leaking at U.S. gathering and processing facilities. Researchers with the study suggest leak detection and repair policies can be effective at minimizing emissions from these sources. Learn more »

    • Transmission and Storage Study

      February 2015

      The paper confirms compressors and equipment leaks are two primary sources for the sector’s methane emissions. Learn more »

    • Boston Study

      January 2015

      Using tower-based measurements, the study found methane emissions were are more than two times higher than inventory data would suggest, with a yearly average loss rate between 2.1 and 3.3 percent. Learn more »

    • UT Study, Phase 2

      December 2014

      The study found that emissions from two sources—pneumatics and liquids unloadings—were responsible for a significant portion of methane emissions from the production sector. Learn more »

    • HARC/EPA Study

      November 2014

      A statistical analysis of national production data suggests unpredictable events, such as malfunctions and maintenance, have a strong influence on emission rates. Learn more »

    • Methane Maps Release

      July 2014

      EDF and Google Earth Outreach release interactive maps that show methane leaking from pipelines under city streets. Learn more »

    • Denver-Julesburg Flyover Study

      May 2014

      The study estimated methane emissions that were three times higher than estimates derived from EPA data. The study also found that levels of smog-forming VOCs were twice as high as EPA estimates, and Benzene levels were 7 times higher than previously estimated. Learn more »

    • UT Study, Phase 1

      December 2013

      The study found that methane emissions from equipment leaks and pneumatic devices were larger than previously thought and that techniques to reduce emissions from well completions are effective at capturing 99% of the methane that was previously vented to the atmosphere, providing a data-based example of EPA regulations working. Learn more »

    EDF’s Methane Research »


    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