Proponents of the natural gas industry, including Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, have marketed natural gas as the key to a carbon-free energy future. But oil and natural gas production emits significantly higher amounts of methane than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates, according to a new study by researchers from Harvard, NOAA, Berkeley and more. According to researchers,
Successful regulation of greenhouse gas emissions requires knowledge of current methane emission sources… However, government estimates for total US methane emissions may be biased by 50%, and estimates of individual source sectors are even more uncertain… These results cast doubt on the US EPA’s recent decision to downscale its estimate of national natural gas emissions by 25–30%.
The study is based on atmospheric methane observations rather than the industry-provided numbers used by the EPA. Researchers note that the EPA “recently decreased its CH4 [methane] emission factors for fossil fuel extraction and processing by 25-30%,” but that, in fact, US methane data suggests a “need for a larger adjustment of the opposite sign.”
Researchers concluded that “regional methane emissions due to fossil fuel extraction and processing could be 4.9 ± 2.6 times larger than in EDGAR, the most comprehensive global methane inventory.” According to ClimateProgress, “This suggests the methane leakage rate from natural gas production, which EPA recently decreased to about 1.5%, is in fact 3% or higher.”
Several past studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have examined the leakage rates of oil and natural gas production. In 2012, NOAA researchers found that natural gas producers in the Denver area lose about 4 percent of their gas to the atmosphere, “not including additional losses in the pipeline and distribution system.”
This year, NOAA released two studies, one on leakage from oil and gas exploration in the Los Angeles basin and another that found that “on one February day in the Uintah Basin, the natural gas field leaked 6 to 12 percent of the methane produced, on average, on February days.” The Uintah Basin in Utah produces about 1 percent of total US natural gas and, during the last few years, ozone levels in the basin have skyrocketed.
“With this most recent study, our understanding of the limitations of natural gas is now fairly complete,” Joe Romm, of ClimateProgress, states. “Natural gas is not a bridge to a carbon-free or climate-safe future. In fact, absent both a serious price for carbon and very strong, enforceable national regulations on leakage, natural gas is a gangplank.”
Another study released this month finds that the natural gas industry has been exaggerating the number of jobs it creates. Research from the Multi-State Shale Research Collaborative finds that “The number of jobs created is far below industry claims and remains a small share of overall employment in the [Marcellus and Utica Shale] region.”
Researchers found that the fracking industry made “little difference in job growth” in New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia.
Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.