Methane and gas emissions from oil and gas production are likely as much as 63% higher than what has been reported by the EPA, according to a new study published in Science. The problem stems from how methane leaks are identified and measured – usually at specific intervals and parts of equipment rather than at the facility as a whole, which means surprise leaks tend to be unaccounted for. Technology and “big data” can give us the information we need to solve the problem, experts say.
The study, conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and 15 partner universities, pinpoints a difficult situation. Natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, and burning natural gas results in fewer pollutants released to the atmosphere – but the methane that is released before it is burned is severely damaging to the environment, writes Ars Technica.
The researchers estimate that US natural gas production is releasing gas equivalent to 2.3% of gross US national gas production, compared to the 1.4% the EPA has previously cited.
Once natural gas leakage reaches somewhere between 4% and 5% of gross US natural gas production, it could actually be worse than burning coal, from a climate perspective, the New York Times reports.
The article points to a 2017 study that found that once the natural gas leakage rate hit between four and five percent of gross US natural gas production, natural gas is about equivalent to burning coal from a climate perspective.
While curbing the problem is a necessity, it might not be an insanely costly one. In fact, with the lost methane worth an estimated $2 billion a year, industry could reduce its methane emissions by 75% and two-thirds of that would pay for itself because of the value of the saved gas, according to EDF chief scientist and author of the paper Steven Hamburg, the Times writes.
Tech to the Rescue
Technology and “big data” are already helping to solve the problem. “One day in the not-so-distant future, oil refineries, chemical plants, natural gas wells and other industrial sites will be fully wired,” writes the EDF’s director of strategic initiatives Beth Trask. “A network of sensors will detect a harmful pollutant the moment a leak occurs, and within minutes, a maintenance crew will be deployed to complete the repair.”
Trask cited an example from Pennsylvania: state officials had learned that pollution from oil and gas wells was found to be significantly higher than had been reported. Data from sensors and mobile monitoring methods, paired with peer-reviewed research, resulted in a new algorithm for estimating total emissions and tools to identify ways to cut emissions.