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 oil and 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 oil and 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, Oil and 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 oil and gas supply chain 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

    Thanks in part to these studies, political leaders are beginning to address the issue of methane pollution.

    President Obama and his administration have taken important steps to curb this pollution, though much more remains to be done. On the state and global level, leaders are also putting forth clear plans to cut this dangerous pollutant.

    Recent publications

    • Flyover study

      April 2016

      In the largest sample size of any methane study performed to date, researchers used infrared technology to conduct an aerial survey of over 8,000 well pads in seven geologic basins to characterize the prevalence of “super emitters”. The study concludes that super emitters are widespread and unpredictable, but easily identified through better and more frequent monitoring.
      Summary blog post »
      Details (ACS Publications) »

    • Barnett study

      Update: December 2015

      Scientists estimated regional and facility-level methane emissions in the Texas Barnett Shale, collecting data using aircraft, vehicular, and other ground-based platforms. A preliminary study estimated regional methane emissions 50% higher than EPA’s 2013 Greenhouse Gas Inventory, with subsequent research estimating emissions could be as much as 90% higher. Details (ACS Publications) »

    • 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. Details (ACS Publications) »

    Overview of all publications to date [PDF] »

    Media contacts

    • Kelsey Robinson
      (512) 691-3404 (office)
    • Lauren Whittenberg
      (512) 691-3437 (office)

    In-depth resources

    Detailed questions and answers about other studies:

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