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A Close Look at Fugitive Methane Emissions from Natural Gas | World Resources Institute

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A Close Look at Fugitive Methane Emissions from Natural Gas

A Close Look at Fugitive Methane Emissions from


Natural Gas
by

James Bradbury and Michael Obeiter - April 02, 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 hasnt come

A natural gas drilling rig. Photo credit: Justin


Woolford, Flickr

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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A Close Look at Fugitive Methane Emissions from Natural Gas | World Resources Institute

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.

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 1012 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, it is a significant driver of shortterm warming, and reducing methane emissions can help slow the rise in global
temperatures.
While proponents of natural gas often tout its green credentialscombustion of
natural gas emits roughly one-half the CO2 of coal combustionthis 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
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A Close Look at Fugitive Methane Emissions from Natural Gas | World Resources Institute

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, thats 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. Well 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, well never have a truly complete picture of the amount of methane
being emitted.

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 performancestudies 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 usesfor example, in the case of vehicles. Also, if fugitive methane
emissions exceed 3 percent of total gas production, natural gass climate
advantage over coal disappears over a 20-year time horizon.
The critical question is: Given the current extent of U.S. natural gas production
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and the fact that production is projected to expand by more than 50 percent in the
coming decadesare 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.

How Can We Mitigate Natural Gass 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. Well also need policies to significantly
reduce carbon dioxide emissionsfrom 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, costeffective 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.

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If the global warming


link by Jeremy on Apr 07, 2014
If the global warming potential (GWP) of CH is 25 times greater than CO over a
100-year period, and if CH emissions account for 10% of total U.S. GHG
emissions, then the U.S. impact on global warming is much greater through CH
emissions than through CO. [I'm calculating it like this: volume x GWP = impact
i.e. 10 x 25 =250 for methane, and 90 x 1 = 90 for CO]. So CH has an impact 2.77
times greater (250/90) than CO. Surely, you need to emphasize this?
REPLY

Thanks for your comment,


link by Michael Obeiter on Apr 08, 2014
Thanks for your comment, Jeremy, but the 10% figure you cite already takes the
higher global warming potential of methane into account. According to the
EPA, methane is roughly 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which they
calculate by multiplying the volume of methane emissions - roughly 27 million
metric tons in 2012 - by the global warming potential of methane (in this case,
EPA uses the somewhat outdated 100-year global warming potential of 21).
That calculation yields 564.4 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent from all
sources of methane. By comparison, EPA estimates that CO2 emissions in 2012
were 5,377 million metric tons. For more information, see
http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/Downloads/ghgemissions/US-GHGInventory....
REPLY

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