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DENVER — A new study has concluded that methane leaks from natural gas sites are 60 percent higher than estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The study, which was compiled by the Environmental Defense Fund, found that methane leaks from these sites at a rate of 2.3 percent. The EPA estimates for these leaks nationwide is closer to 1.4 percent.
The EDF says that 13 million metric tons of leaked methane is enough to power 10 million homes for a year.
The work of more than 140 researchers and 16 smaller studies was gathered for the study. Several Colorado State University researchers took part in it.
“We were in the field for 20 weeks and in 13 different U.S. states and we would measure the total methane emissions from an entire facility,” said Anthony Marchese, a professor of mechanical engineering at CSU. “We went to about 120 of those facilities and we developed a national model.”
Marchese says half of those 16 studies were funded by natural gas companies.
Natural gas has long been considered a better energy source than coal because it has fewer negative effects on the environment.
“The problem is that natural gas is composed primarily of methane and methane itself is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide,” Marchese said.
The study concluded that so much methane is being leaked that it could be contributing to climate change and numerous health risks.
“Once you get to 2 to 3 percent, then there’s a risk that burning natural gas can actually be worse than coal in terms of the immediate climate benefits that we can realize from natural gas,” Marchese said.
However, some groups disagree with that assessment.
“Other scientists say it’s more like 8 percent emissions then natural gas emissions would reduce its greenhouse gas benefits. So, I don’t think it’s clear and cut and dry,” said Kathleen Sgamma, the president of Western Energy Alliance.
Sgamma said she believes the study is an outlier and that several others have found the leak rate to be closer to between 1.2 and 1.6 percent.
Other environmental groups argue the true methane leak rate is much higher than the study estimated.
“Science is not one study,” Sgamma said.
She believes the study has serious flaws because it took a top-to-bottom approach that doesn’t account for things like routine maintenance.
That’s when some methane is intentionally leaked into the air to relieve pressure that’s built up in the pipes to prevent an explosion. Sgamma believes those methane releases might have skewed the study’s numbers a bit.
“That’s a problem going on with the studies is they don’t know what’s actually going on, on the ground and they’re going to assume a much higher emissions rate,” Sgamma said.
Right now, natural gas accounts for between 20 and 30 percent of U.S. energy consumption. That number could go up to as much as 50 percent in coming years.
Along with greater energy independence, natural gas contributes billions to the American economy and provides hundreds of thousands of jobs.
“The industry has reduced methane omissions over 14 percent over the last several decades even as we’ve increased natural gas production over 50 percent,” Sgamma said. “We are the number one reason the United States has reduced greenhouse gas emissions more than any other country.”
However, CSU senior research associate Dan Zimmerle says there’s still more than can be done. He helps run a one-of-a-kind test site in Fort Collins that gives natural gas and tech companies the ability to test their leak detection devices.
“What we are doing here simulating the conditions you would see at a well site,” Zimmerle said. “What we can do is simulate leaks at the occur on the equipment, but we can do it in a very controlled fashion.”
The test site has more than 200 places it can leak methane from in small and large amounts for devices to detect. It’s funded by the Department of Energy and much of the equipment was donated by natural gas producers.
It is just one way researchers are teaming up with the industry to try to cut down on methane leaks.
However, Marchese believes more regulation on the natural gas producers would also help since the cost to fix the leaks might sometimes be more costly than the leaked methane is actually worth.
“Without those regulations are going to be a lot slower to adopt new practices and new technology,” Marchese said.
He believes there are some ways, however, to reduce emissions that will not place a big financial burden on producers.
Something he has applauded, though, is Colorado’s efforts to cut down on methane leaks at these sites. He says Colorado has some of the strictest regulations in the country for natural gas producers.
But Sgamma sees it more as a burden than anything else.
“Colorado was one of the first states to come out with methane leak detection repair and, as a result, other states have learned from Colorado not to do it the way Colorado did it,” Sgamma said. “Colorado locked into a certain technology in a very cumbersome process that is very expensive.”
She believes the best way to cut down on leaks is to allow companies to innovate and come up with their own solutions without having to cut through all of the bureaucratic red tape.
Both supporters and critics of the study say that when natural gas is collected correctly, it is a good energy source to rely on, unlike coal, which produces carbon dioxide when it is burned.
“We can’t make coal burn definitely but we can make a gas leak less. That’s the hopeful part. If we know then we can fix,” Zimmerle said.
Both groups also agree that more can be done to fix the leaks that are happening at natural gas sites; it’s just a matter of finding the best way to do it.
“We want to capture as much of that as possible because that is the product that we sell,” Sgamma said.
“We really would love that leak rate to get down to 1 percent. It’s a challenge but it’s possible,” Marchese said.