Largest Methane Study to Date Confirms We Need to Do a Better Job Checking for Methane Leaks

By Matt Watson and David Lyon

Drive by an oil or gas well pad, and it may not look like much — a couple of storage tanks, some pipes, maybe a see-sawing pump jack. But fly over one of these facilities with an infrared camera and you might see something different: methane pollution.

We did exactly that for a new study accepted today in Environmental Science and Technology. In the largest sample size of any methane emissions study to date, we hired one of the nation’s most experienced leak detection companies to fly a helicopter over 8,000 well pads in seven regions across the country using infrared technology to capture images of methane and other pollutants. The goal was to better characterize the prevalence of “super emitters” – the large, enigmatic sources responsible for a big portion of industry’s methane pollution – so we could figure out how to stop them.

What we found was stark. Methane pollution was widespread, pouring out from these super emitter sites in every basin.  We also confirmed what other studies have shown – that super-emitting sources are nearly impossible to predict.  They can happen anywhere, anytime as a result of malfunctioning equipment that goes unattended and sloppy mistakes in the field.

The take-away is clear.  Operators need to be vigilant in monitoring for leaks.  And we need strong rules in place to ensure all operators are doing so – not just the leading companies that have implemented leak detection and repair programs voluntarily.

None of this is surprising. The study today merely confirms what previous studies have found.  A recent study of emissions in Texas Barnett shale, for example, found super emitters were contributing disproportionately to production emissions and that you couldn’t reliably predict where and when they would happen.

How We Stop an Invisible Pollutant

The study attempted to pinpoint common characteristics that can trigger one of these polluters. After several months of conducting a statistical analysis comparing sites with and without observed emissions, researchers concluded that some characteristics – like the amount of oil a site produces – exhibited a slight correlation with these mega polluters, but overall it’s nearly impossible to predict when and where one of these emissions sources might pop up. Even sites with flares, vapor recovery units and other standard emission controls in place, could fall victim to super polluters.

Rather than trying to guess where these super polluters will occur, it is clear from the study that regularly checking oil and gas facilities for leaky equipment is a more effective way to identify both high polluting sources, which this study sought to examine, as well as the other low- polluting sources, which may be individually smaller but are collectively significant and represent a substantial share of industry emissions.

Systematic checks are also affordable and effective, and you don’t need your own helicopter to do it. In Colorado, for example, operators have been inspecting oil and gas equipment for leaks – at some sites as often as once month — for more than two years, with “no complaints” from industry. The Bureau of Land Management likewise called for leak detection practices at existing sources in its draft venting and flaring rule, aimed at curtailing oil and gas methane emissions on public and tribal lands.

That’s not the only good news. Researchers found that emission control technologies do work most of the time. These cost-effective tools and practices are critical to helping industry keep gas out of the air and in the supply chain. It’s when they fail – often because of mechanical malfunctions or other design problems – that the impacts can be most severe.

Establishing Rules of the Road

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas responsible for a quarter of the climate disruption we’re experiencing today. And the U.S. oil and gas industry is estimated to be dumping more than 9 million tons of methane into the atmosphere every year.  But just as the threat is so severe, so is the opportunity.  Reducing global methane emissions by just 45 percent – something we can do cost-effectively with today’s technologies – would have the same near-term climate benefit as eliminating 1,000 coal-fired power plants.

Last month, President Obama committed to cut methane pollution from the oil and gas industry’s existing infrastructure – a pledge that will take the administration getting serious about comprehensive, rigorous methane monitoring and repair in order to find and fix the elusive super polluters that are a big part of the emissions problem.

This new study underscores the urgency of getting these standards in place. Because the sooner we find methane leaks and the sooner we stop them, the bigger dent we can make in slowing the rate of global warming. As several analyses have shown, leak detection and repair programs are a cost-effective way to control emissions – making methane reductions one of the best bargains in the energy industry for cutting greenhouse gases while eliminating energy waste. Coming off the hottest year on record, the time for action has never been more pressing.

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