A Cornell study released last year, lead by Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology Robert Howarth, was the first of its kind to study the global warming impact of natural gas extraction from shale deposits. The conclusion was that fracking releases up to 8 percent of the extracted methane directly into the atmosphere, and reports that all methane will contribute to 44 percent of global warming. Photo Andrew Michler
In recent days, news reports and blog posts have highlighted the problem of fugitive methane emissions from natural gas production—leakage of a potent greenhouse gas with the potential to undermine the carbon advantage that natural gas, when combusted, holds over other fossil fuels. These news accounts, based on studies in the Denver-Julesburg Basin of Colorado and the Uinta Basin of Utah by scientists affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado at Boulder, have reported leakage rates of 4 percent and 9 percent of total production, respectively—higher than the current U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) leakage estimate of 2.3 percent.
While the Colorado and Utah studies offer valuable snapshots of a specific place on a specific day, neither is a systematic measurement across geographies and extended time periods and that is what’s necessary to accurately scope the dimensions of the fugitive methane problem. For this reason, conclusions should not be drawn about total leakage based on these preliminary, localized reports. Drawing conclusions from such results would be like trying to draw an elephant after touching two small sections of the animal’s skin: the picture is unlikely to be accurate. In the coming months, ongoing work by the NOAA/UC team, as well as by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and other academic and industry partners, will provide a far more systematic view that will greatly increase our understanding of the fugitive methane issue, though additional studies will still be needed to fully resolve the picture. What follows is a briefing on the fugitive methane issue, including the range of measurements currently underway and the need for rigorous data collection along the entire natural gas supply chain.
Why methane leakage matters. Natural gas, which is mostly methane, burns with fewer carbon dioxide emissions than other fossil fuels. However, when uncombusted methane leaks into the atmosphere from wells, pipelines and storage facilities, it acts as a powerful greenhouse gas with enormous implications for global climate change due to its short-term potency: Over a 20-year time frame, each pound of methane is 72 times more powerful at increasing the retention of heat in the atmosphere than a pound of carbon dioxide. Based on EPA’s projections, if we could drastically reduce global emissions of short-term climate forcers such as methane and fluorinated gases over the next 20 years, we could slow the increase in net radiative forcing (heating of the atmosphere) by one third or more.
Fugitive methane emissions from natural gas production, transportation and distribution are the single largest U.S. source of short-term climate forcing gases. The EPA estimates that 2.3 percent of total natural gas production is lost to leakage, but this estimate, based on early 1990’s data, is sorely in need of updating. The industry claims a leakage rate of about 1.6 percent. Cornell University professor Robert Howarth has estimated that total fugitive emissions of 3.6 to 7.9 percent over the lifetime of a well.
To determine the true parameters of the problem, EDF is working with diverse academic partners including the University of Texas at Austin, NOAA/UC scientists and dozens of industry partners on direct measurements of fugitive emissions from the U.S. natural gas supply chain. The initiative is comprised of a series of more than ten studies that will analyze emissions from the production, gathering, processing, long-distance transmission and local distribution of natural gas, and will gather data on the use of natural gas in the transportation sector. In addition to analyzing industry data, the participants are collecting field measurements at facilities across the country. The researchers leading these studies expect to submit the first of these studies for publication in February 2012, with the others to be submitted over the course of the year.
The systemic leakage rate will determine whether or not natural gas provides a net climate benefit, with implications for assessing the relative environmental benefits of fuel switching from coal or diesel to natural gas.
Note: EDF’s model disaggregates the leak rate of 2.8 percent as follows: 2.0 percent is leakage from well to city gate (this applies to power plants); 2.3 percent is leakage from well-to-end user (applies to homes and industrial users); the additional 0.5 percent accounts for leakage from natural gas vehicle refueling and use.
As this chart illustrates, lowering the methane leakage and venting rate to 1 percent of total production would double the climate benefit derived from coal-to-natural gas fuel switching over the next 20 years—producing as much climate benefit in that time as closing one-third of the nation’s coal plants. (This assumes that 1 percent is the amount of natural gas produced at well sites lost to the atmosphere, in comparison to a baseline of 2.8 percent, and that the retired coal-fired generation is replaced with equal parts high efficiency natural gas fired generation and zero-emissions electric generation, such as renewables.)
Preliminary studies. Recently, a series of studies has emerged, each providing a snapshot of leakage from a specific region and a specific segment of the natural gas system at a specific point in time:
- 2010; Fort-Worth, TX: Analysis of reported routine emissions from more than 250 well sites with no compressor engines in Barnett Shale gas well sites in the City of Fort Worth revealed a highly-skewed distribution of emissions, with 10 percent of well sites accounting for nearly 70 percent of total emissions. Natural gas leak rates calculated based on operator-reported, daily gas production data at these well sites ranged from 0 percent to 5 percent, with 6 sites out of 203 showing leak rates of 2.6 percent or greater due to routine emissions alone.
- February 2012; Denver-Julesburg, CO: Tower study by NOAA/UC scientists suggested that up to 4 percent of the methane produced at a field near Denver was escaping into the atmosphere.
- December 2012: At an American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, the NOAA/UC team described the unpublished results of a study in the Uinta Basin, Utah, suggesting even higher rates of methane leakage, 9 percent of total production.
- Forthcoming studies include: March 2013 (est.) reporting by University of Texas at Austin (in collaboration with nine corporate partners and EDF) of a study about emissions from gas production; subsequent 2013/early 2014 studies will address gathering, processing, long-distance transmission and local distribution.
Some of these studies have revealed or are likely to reveal relatively high levels of fugitive methane emissions, while others are likely to reveal lower levels. None of them, taken alone or in tandem, can yet provide an accurate picture of system-wide leakage. As a news story in the journal Nature concluded, “Whether the high leakage rates claimed in Colorado and Utah are typical across the U.S. natural-gas industry remains unclear. The NOAA data represent a 'small snapshot' of a much larger picture that the broader scientific community is now assembling.”
Great care should be taken to avoid drawing conclusions based on the partial data these studies provide. This will be a particular challenge given that advocates for natural gas production are likely to call attention to the low-leakage results, while opponents of natural gas production are likely to call attention to the high-leakage results, with each side claiming that the latest study “proves” its argument. Neither claim will be reliably accurate.
In other words, anyone who wants to get this important story right will need to be patient and wait for the more comprehensive results to come in later this year. Until then, no accurate conclusion can be drawn about the full scope of this critical issue. Please proceed with caution.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
Click here to sign a petition to tell the Bureau of Land Management to issue strong rules for federal fracking leases on public lands.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.