Are Methane Leaks Offsetting the CO2 Benefit of Natural Gas?

 Exxon Mobil Refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana,

Exxon Mobil Refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Credit: CC/WClarke

The American oil and gas industry is leaking nearly 60% higher than the government estimates, according to a new peer-reviewed study. The highlights of the study give a clear picture of the climate impact of natural gas, and as methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, the news is not encouraging for climate change.

The study is led by Environmental Defence Fund researchers and has 19 co-authors from 15 institutions, who estimated that the leak rate from U.S. oil and gas operations is 2.3%, which is significantly higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) estimate of 1.4%. The lost methane is estimated at $2 billion a year. And, Steven Hamburg, chief scientist of the Environmental Defence Fund and an author of the paper stated that the emissions are avoidable, not inherent. He also cited estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that the industry could reduce its methane emissions by 75%. And, added that two-thirds of the reductions would pay for themselves, which could be attributed to the value of the saved gas.

The study recommended that companies install less failure-prone systems, and consider re-engineering individual components and processes. Also, carry out on-site leak surveys, and deploy sensors at individual facilities and on towers, satellites or the aircraft. Meanwhile, some of the oil and gas firms are using infrared cameras to detect methane leaks and are also exploring the use of satellites or drones for the task. Exxon Mobil, an international Oil and Gas Company, recently announced a plan to replace older equipment to reduce its methane emissions to 15% by 2020.

The new study, a result of five years of research was founded on finding the extent of methane leakage and its effect on climate. In the context, Richard Meyer, managing director of energy analysis for the American Gas Association, expressed concerns on the alternative hypotheses being dismissed. And, an EPA spokeswoman said that the agency was looking forward to reviewing the study.

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