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A Close Look At Fugitive Methane Emissions From Natural Gas
Submitted by Michael Obeiter and James Bradbury on April 2, 2013

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Natural gas is booming in the United States. Production has increased by 20 percent in the last five years, fueled largely by technological advances in shale gas extraction. Other countries– including China–are now studying our experience with this abundant new resource. But the growing role of natural gas in the U.S. energy mix hasn’t come without controversy. Natural gas development poses a variety of environmental risks. In addition to habitat disruption and impacts on local water and air quality, one of the most significant concerns is the climate impact resulting from the “fugitive methane emissions” that escape into the atmosphere from various points along the natural gas supply chain.

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So what are fugitive methane emissions, and how big of a problem are they? How do emissions from natural gas compare to those from coal? And are there ways to mitigate them? The answers to these questions will help us better understand how natural gas development will affect climate change.

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What Are Fugitive Methane Emissions, and How Do They Contribute to Climate Change?
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a powerful greenhouse gas–25 times stronger than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 100-year time horizon and 72 times stronger over a 20-year horizon. Though methane represents only about 10-12 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, it is a significant driver of short-term warming, and reducing methane emissions can help slow the rise in global temperatures. While proponents of natural gas often tout its “green” credentials—combustion of natural gas emits roughly one-half the CO2 of coal combustion—this is not the whole story. When it is extracted from the well, natural gas is composed of roughly 83 percent methane, after processing and through the point of delivery, it is more than 90 percent methane. Producing, processing, and transporting of natural gas can release some of this methane into the atmosphere. Accidental methane leaks and routine venting–which together, make up fugitive methane emissions–reduce the comparative climate advantage of natural gas for electricity generation. Plus, at current estimated leakage rates, fugitive emissions actually make compressed natural gas a questionable choice for fuel-switching in cars and trucks.

What Is the Extent of the Problem?
There is still considerable uncertainty over the amount of fugitive methane emitted over the lifetime of a natural gas well. However, some aspects generate little debate—namely, that emissions from natural gas production are substantial and occur at every stage of the natural gas life cycle, from pre-production through production, processing, transmission, and distribution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than 6 million metric tons of fugitive methane leaked from natural gas systems in 2011. Measured as CO2-equivalent over a 100 year time horizon, that’s more greenhouse gases than were emitted by all U.S. iron and steel, cement, and aluminum manufacturing facilities combined. Many ongoing studies aim to provide more clarity on the extent of fugitive methane emissions from natural gas. We’ll get a clearer picture when data from these studies is looked at in conjunction with industry data reported to the EPA Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. But with about 500,000 existing natural gas wells, thousands of miles of pipeline, and a growing interest in natural gas development, we’ll never have a truly complete picture of the amount of methane being emitted.

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Is Natural Gas Better than Coal?
Considerable media attention has focused on the question of whether gas is “better” than coal from a climate perspective. On the one hand, this question sets a low bar for environmental performance—studies have found that by just about any measure, every other energy source is less damaging to the environment and public health than coal. On the other hand, this is an important benchmark, since more than 30 percent of U.S. natural gas is used for electric power generation and more than 90 percent of all U.S. coal consumption is used for this purpose. The question has also received heightened attention as many older, inefficient coal-fired power plants retire and natural gas-fired plants provide a growing share of total electric power generation. At the point of combustion, natural gas is roughly half as carbon-intensive as coal. However, this comparison fails to account for upstream fugitive methane emissions. When used for electric power generation, natural gas is typically much more efficient than coal, but natural gas is not a more energy efficient fuel option for all uses—for example, in the case of vehicles. Also, if fugitive methane emissions exceed 3 percent of total gas production, natural gas’s climate advantage over coal disappears over a 20-year time horizon.

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A Close Look at Fugitive Methane Emissions from Natural Gas | WRI Insights http://insights.wri.org/news/2013/04/close-look-fugitive-methane-emissio...

The critical question is: Given the current extent of U.S. natural gas production—and the fact that production is projected to expand by more than 50 percent in the coming decades—are we doing everything we can to ensure that emissions are as low as is technologically and economically feasible? The answer to that question today is clearly “no.”
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How Can We Mitigate Natural Gas’s Impact?
Numerous cost-effective technologies can reduce fugitive methane emissions, which will curb global warming and save money for energy companies and for consumers. While some companies are voluntarily implementing these technologies to varying degrees, the industry is vast, including thousands of participants with diverse market interests. Much more can be done. In a working paper to be published later this week, we discuss in greater detail the scale of the methane leakage issue, as well as numerous policy and technology pathways for state and federal authorities to begin limiting these harmful emissions. Ultimately, cleaning up fugitive methane should be an urgent priority to help slow the rate of climate change in the near-term. We’ll also need policies to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions—from the combustion of natural gas as well as other fossil fuels. To stabilize the climate at safe levels by mid-century, we need to address GHG emissions from all sources. Fugitive methane is one important, cost-effective opportunity that we can begin addressing today. LEARN MORE: Stay tuned for our forthcoming working paper, Clearing the Air: Reducing Upstream Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Natural Gas Systems, which will be released later this week.

TAGS: climate change , natural gas, us policy

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A renewable/gas hybrid, only
Submitted by George Hillenbrand on July 2, 2013. A renewable/gas hybrid, only burning gas as necessary, enables adoption of renewable sources, like solar, that can't guarantee continuous output. Oil might satisfy the same role - but remember monster spills and recent wars for oil. Coal doesn't turn on and off quickly, which makes it difficult to use coal in combination with renewable energy, i.e. at night with solar, or on windless days. Coal plants are 50-100 year commitments, huge money is spent up front, and this money demands unending trainloads of coal continue to be burned. When we postpone gas, we may well be postponing it for 50 years. I'd rather see our money spent figuring out how to avoid gas leaks than spend the same money trying to mitigate coal emissions. A proper comparison isn't just one fuel versus another, it's one complete infrastructure versus another. I love renewable energy, so I like gas because gas makes renewable energy feasible sooner. As renewable energy becomes ubiquitous, just a little gas should be needed for the relatively few days of the year when the sun simply isn't shining anywhere. That's the win. reply

Please take this argument one
Submitted by Louise Stonington on April 15, 2013. Please take this argument one step further, and also check your math. Natural gas, when it burns, emits 117,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per billion BTU of energy output, oil emits 164,000 and coal 208,000. So burning coal puts out 91 tons more CO2 per BTU than natural gas. Natural gas is mostly methane, warming 72 times as much as CO2 over a 20 year period, and 25 times as much over a 100 year period. If we multiply that 91 ton difference by 72 by 3% we get 197,000, which if we add that to 117,000 gives us 314,000 Tons, way more warming potential than coal. Therefor the statement, “if fugitive methane emissions exceed 3% of total gas production, natural gas’s climate advantage over coal disappears over a 20 year time horizon.” Is somewhat inaccurate, it should read 2% emissions/leaks means that natural gas just as bad as coal. If you use the lower warming multiple, as promoters of natural gas want to do, and over a 100 year period, and then 4% methane leakage makes natural gas just as bad as coal. So no one knows what the leakage rate is, but there are a few field studies, one in Colorado putting the rate at 4%, another calculating 8%. When natural gas is used in vehicles, extra energy used to compress it adds to its warming potential, making it clearly worse for the climate than gasoline/oil. Even if US regulations require developers to capture those leaks, there is no guarantee they can or will, and it is certain that the 96% of the world’s reserves of natural gas in other countries will not. The ramping up of use of natural gas is chilling the market and investment draw of green technology. We must stop saying that natural gas is 'clean', or a 'bridge fuel' and oppose development for future use. We need energy investment to go into clean energy, made in America, that we can export and out compete fossil fuels. reply

We currently send $130
Submitted by Christian Miller on April 3, 2013. We currently send $130 billion each year to OPEC in order to burn 1.5 billion barrels of oil in cars and trucks. We can stop buying any oil from OPEC by converting just 23% of our vehicles to compressed natural gas (CNG). We need to be very

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7/24/2013 3:37 AM

A Close Look at Fugitive Methane Emissions from Natural Gas | WRI Insights http://insights.wri.org/news/2013/04/close-look-fugitive-methane-emissio...

careful with the fugitive methane emissions but let us stop sending money to the Middle East. reply

Christian, What data do you
Submitted by Jim Pierobon on June 17, 2013. Christian, What data do you have and/or what are your sources for the 23% conversion metric? Please share here or email me at your earliest convenience. Thanks! reply

In making comparisons between
Submitted by EnviroAus on April 2, 2013. In making comparisons between the LNG and coal industry it is important to include the fugitive release of methane through the pre-draining of gas from coal seams prior to mining or its release during open cut mining operations. reply

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