How much methane is lost into the air?

Academics, environmentalists and industry team up to collect better data

Methane can leak at any point in the natural gas supply chain. We're measuring how much may be escaping and contributing to climate change.

Photo credit: John Rae

When it comes to solving climate change, we're missing a big piece in the puzzle: What is the impact of the natural gas boom?

Current estimates show that somewhere between 1% to 8% of produced U.S. natural gas is lost as a result of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Methane can be vented or leaked from drill sites, or anywhere along the vast web of pipelines that ultimately delivers natural gas to our homes and businesses.

Understanding the magnitude of methane being emitted is important, because if they are too high, emissions could undermine the lower-carbon advantage of natural gas.

What we're doing about it

In 2012, we kicked off a series of studies — collaborating with more than 90 academic, research and industry partners — to better understand how much and from where methane is lost from the system today. This information is critical for developing best design practices and policy solutions.

We're investigating emissions from five key areas that make up the natural gas supply chain: 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. Credible and independent advisors serve on Scientific Advisory Panels, reviewing study procedures, results and conclusions. An additional independent review is conducted by the scientific journals for each study that's submitted for publication.

Filling the data gap

This effort will help us develop 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.

"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."

We're able to get the best minds really understanding the problem.

Steve Hamburg EDF Chief Scientist

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