Utah, we have a problem. That's the conclusion of a report from the publication Nature saying that methane leaks from US natural gas fields may be anywhere from two to three times as large as previously estimated.

As much as four percent of the natural gas production at a field near Denver is escaping into the atmosphere via methane leaks, Nature says, citing researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado in Boulder. Meanwhile, a Utah field may be leaking as much as nine percent of its natural-gas production.

These numbers are too high to be good for the environment, and the production leaks could indicate that expanded production of natural gas may outweigh the other environmental benefit of both reduced oil consumption and fewer coal-fired electricity plants. Natural gas fields had previously been though to leak about 2.4 percent of their production, while Princeton University researchers said last year that anything less than a 3.2 percent leakage rate would indicate that natural gas production is environmentally beneficial.

Thus we can see a problem for increasing the number of natural gas vehicles. With lower leakage rates, more natural gas production could be considered beneficial in both the energy and transportation industries because natural gas's abundance in North America could cut America's dirty foreign-oil dependency. Honda, for example, makes a natural-gas powered Civic (now called the Civic Natural Gas, formerly the Civic GX), while General Motors is among the automakers producing natural-gas powered trucks. There are about 1,150 compressed natural gas (CNG) refueling stations in the US, almost a quarter of which are in California, according to the US Department of Energy. If the natural gas production is dirty, then using more of it isn't the solution.


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  • 43 Comments
      ufgrat
      • 1 Year Ago
      With estimates like "may be anywhere from two to three times as large as previously estimated", and "may be leaking as much as nine percent of its natural-gas production", and "could indicate", and "may outweigh", I've got to wonder what the significant digits are for this study, let alone the margin of error. The phrase "may be anywhere from two to three times", suggests to my non-statistical mind an error margin of +/- 50%. Note that the previous numbers that this "report" is challenging are quite specific-- "about" 2.4% (obviously an average) leakage, and anything less than 3.2% is is a win... Can we get some specifics please, instead of just vague "maybe we should panic" type reports? I'm really tired of every effort at finding an alternative to oil being shot down because in the near term, it's not nearly as good as a technology we've spent over a century perfecting.
        Smith Jim
        • 1 Year Ago
        @ufgrat
        I know the feeling of being frustrated by having so many alternatives to oil being shot down but facts are facts. I don't know where you get the idea that anything less than 3.2% natural gas leakage is a win. The facts, as know them, are that a natural gas leakage rate between 2% and 3% is every bit as dirty as burning coal.
          Joeviocoe
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Smith Jim
          Greenhouse Gases are not "dirty". They cause environmental problems related to climate... but they GHGs are not necessarily a pollutant in themselves. Context matters.
          Joeviocoe
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Smith Jim
          I am not contradicting your statement.. just trying to make sure people are educated about the facts... and sometimes, through the discourse, the lines get blurred as to what exactly we are facing. Coal is dirty and produces GHG which cannot be reliably avoided. Natural Gas is MUCH cleaner in all respects to actual 'harmful' pollutants, and has GHG emissions that are also MUCH better, provided that leaks can be addressed.
          ufgrat
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Smith Jim
          From the article: "... while Princeton University researchers said last year that anything less than a 3.2 percent leakage rate would indicate that natural gas production is environmentally beneficial."
      RC
      • 1 Year Ago
      Well duh! Also flareups from distribution pipes are a major pollution source.
      Ford Future
      • 1 Year Ago
      Wow. Don't understand how stopping you from getting poisoned by a neurotoxin released during the fracking process, is going to get the human race extinct. There are wind and solar just around the corner. Solar will be cheaper then ALL OTHER energy sources in 7 Years. Only a fool would put money into the highly polluting fracking process. From a business angle, these fracking wells are expensive to drill and have a low return on investment, as they dry up fast. From an environmental point: they pollute your ground water, your cattle and your dairy supply. They release neurotoxins. And it's Rich Republicans Killing Poor Republicans as these wells are mostly approved in Republican voting rural districts. Districts who don't have the resources to review or monitor the health damage to the community. But, somehow, it's Democrats at fault. Spin the wheel, all Republican Damage is Obama's fault.
      Roy_H
      • 1 Year Ago
      We really should be pursuing LFTRs. Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors are inherently safe, do not produce long term radio-active waste and run on cheap (as in free) plentiful thorium. See http://flibe-energy.com/attributes/ and also http://energyfromthorium.com/ No pollution, energy for 10s of thousands of years, available in all countries so no need to fight wars over thorium supplies, and of course on-demand energy, where you want it when you want it. Free? Yes, thorium is an unused product of rare earth mines, and at least one rare earth mining company in the US has stated that they would be glad to fill up as many trucks with thorium as anybody would want. A typical rare earth mine produces enough thorium to power the entire world. Only China is presently advancing this technology. If we are lucky, in about 30 years China will start setting up LFTRs in the USA and sell us cheap non-polluting energy. After powering their own country and made their companies even more profitable with cheaper energy first.
        Dave
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Roy_H
        There are several promising possibilities for nuclear technology. Unfortunately, none of them are as cheap and simple as you seem to think LFTRs are. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_IV_reactor http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_fluoride_thorium_reactor#Disadvantages
          DaveMart
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Dave
          LFTRs work at atmospheric pressure. That means that a lot of expense in a conventional reactor is out right at the start, as the engineering and sophisticated components needed to contain it are not needed. They are also high temperature,which although to be sure means that materials able to cope must be used, also means that if there is a breach the salts freeze and the reaction ceases. This makes them inherently passively safe, and most of the expense of LWRs and BWRs is in the multiply redundant safety systems designed to overcome their not being passively safe, but unstable. The article you link at Wiki outlines some design issues, and of course we have not built a large one yet. As you say there are things to be designed around on every reactor proposed. None of those are show stoppers though, or mean that the costs of building them is likely to be as great as present reactors. If you have an atmospheric pressure, modular design of reactor capable of being factory built, that is a different and lower cost ball game to the current generation. What is far more fundamental to cost issues is the problem of renewables. Non-despatchable power presents far greater technological issues at a high rate of grid penetration, and back up and so on are far more inherently expensive.
          Dave
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Dave
          I'm not criticizing LFTRs. I'm just saying that it is too soon to close our minds to other designs and focus exclusively on LFTRs.
        EZEE
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Roy_H
        I thought that was Ford's big thing....
          Dave
          • 1 Year Ago
          @EZEE
          There seems to be an LFTR cult that believes LFTRs are the only solution. Just as there is a BEV cult that thinks BEVs are the only solution. Someone must have written a book or produced a movie or something.....
      Smith Jim
      • 1 Year Ago
      Methane is 75 times more powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2 but methane does break down in the atmosphere. When the methane breakdown IS taken into consideration, methane has 25 times the warming effect as CO2 over a 100 year time frame. All things considered, if the natural gas leakage rate is between 2% and 3% natural gas has the same warming effect as burning coal. Some experts believe the leakage rate is 4% or higher but nobody knows for sure because the natural gas industry is suing the EPA to keep leakage data from being made public. http://www.npr.org/2011/04/14/135417679/natural-gas-may-not-be-clean-energy-source http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/April11/GasDrillingDirtier.html
        DaveMart
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Smith Jim
        I'd be interested in seeing the detailed breakdown for the claim that: 'When the methane breakdown IS taken into consideration, methane has 25 times the warming effect as CO2 over a 100 year time frame.' since neither of your sources provide that. Methane breaks down to CO2 in around 12 years (ibid) so on the face of it the notion that it produces anything like the effect you claim sounds fantastic.
        Smith Jim
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Smith Jim
        I'm glad to see the truth coming out about natural gas. If anyone is interested I'd like to invite you to view a video of a Powerpoint presentation I presented today at the Ethical Society of St. Louis. You can find this video on the Facebook page "Carbonbegone" https://www.facebook.com/Carbonbegone
          Marco Polo
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Smith Jim
          @ Smith Jim, To acquire some balance, I suggest you see the Irish documentary, 'Frack Nation'. Although the documentaries style is a little sensationalist it does explode a lot of myths.
          Smith Jim
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Smith Jim
          I've done a ton of research on the subject. Here's just a tiny sample of what I've found. http://www.bu.edu/today/2012/boston-street-level-gas-leaks-3300-plus/
      Marco Polo
      • 1 Year Ago
      This is a part of an incomplete study of only two sites. To be fair, the Nature Magazine article does say that Gabrielle Pétron's methodology for calculating leakage, (based on chemical analysis of the pollutants ), remains in dispute. Michael Levi, an energy analyst , published a peer-reviewed comment questioning the findings and presenting an alternative interpretation of the data that would align overall leakage rates with previous estimates. Obviously, any escaping methane is the loss of a valuable resource, therefore the NG industry has a vested interest in developing better technology to prevent leakages. More worrying are naturally occurring leakages created by melting permafrost. As the world largest coal miner, the PRC is also world's largest emitter of methane. Although still at an early stage of development, technology developed for US NG production, is helping prevent PRC mines from venting huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere. The Global Environment Facility, an agency created by the United Nations, has funded several pilot projects to successfully siphon and capture methane from PRC mines to use as fuel. Nor is the NG industry the largest emitter of methane. Globally, farming, land fills and the coal industry, are by far the largest sources of atmospheric methane emissions. The widespread use of NG has helped reduce emissions from the coal industry. Early results from the research into the potential to reduce methane emissions in livestock are very positive. The harvesting of Methane from landfills, is becoming a booming energy resource. NG production has been the subject of a great deal of hysterical and disingenuous opposition propaganda. Sensationalist documentaries, such as 'Gasland" and 'Promised land' , based on little more than bad science, paranoia and fantasy, have given rise to the most fantastic claims. As revealed in the Irish documentary, 'Frack Nation', the producer and director of 'Gasland', refused to divulge how much funding 'Gasland' received from the Coal industry. Exploitation of energy resources will always reveal downsides, and periods when the development of technology fails to anticipate, or keep pace with the discovery of problems. The solution is not to abandon the industry, and retreat to a cave, but develop improved technology to reduce any negative environmental impact by an industry that has the potential to revive the US (and world) economy.
        EZEE
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Marco Polo
        Marco Hippies can't be happy. Just can't happen. Global ice age, global warming, fracking is good, fracking is bad, nuclear will kill us all, nuclear is clean, ethanol blows (then Fox News criticizes ethanol), ethanol is the greatest thing since sliced bread, natural gas is clean, natural gas will kill us all, high carbohydrate diets, low carbohydrate diets, no carbohydrate diets, oddly balanced carbohydrate diets, yay science, no go organic no science, we are at we are at war with East Asian, Eurasia is our ally, (on a cold day) weather isn't climate, weather has nothing to do with climate, (on a hot day), 'my god look at how hot it is, global warming!' So off i go, in my ULEV flex fuel vehicle to whole foods, then take a bike ride, or to with Miss Illinois on a horseback riding trip in to the backwoods of Florida and enjoy nature, rescue the gopher tortoises trying to cross the street, and focus on tht one hippie saying (hippies aren't all bad) 'think globally, act locally' and just effing enjoy life. Oh hey - did you see I did math on your bunker oil thingy? It was under an article on the Leaf...
          EVSUPERHERO
          • 1 Year Ago
          @EZEE
          45 trillion.... Then someone pointed out not all the particles you sight are pollutants. Anywho, why can't the US pull it's head out and use CNG to power our fleet of ships? Instead we have the oil corps wanting to ship our NG out of the US ASAP.. Not a good plan for energy independence. We use these dirty ships to export our NG so that our great grand children can pay the oil corps to import it 150- 200 years from now. In the mean time they can use the left overs from petroleum products, bunker fuel, to export and import our resources. Great for oil corps not so good for America. Yes it provides dirty jobs, but at what cost to the environment and who really makes the most. The rich get richer and the middle class shrinks.
          EZEE
          • 1 Year Ago
          @EZEE
          Oh sweet, thank you. All I did was math, so you are better informed to reply... Will go read now! :-)
          Marcopolo
          • 1 Year Ago
          @EZEE
          @ EZEE Thank you for your posting on the dangers of Bunker Oil . I posted some relies to the various comments.
          Marcopolo
          • 1 Year Ago
          @EZEE
          @ EVSUPERHERO I'm afraid you are confused and blaming the wrong culprit. The "oil Corps'' , (for once) are not guilty. No major oil company wants to continue manufacturing Marine grade No. oil.(bunker oil) It's expensive to handle, very low profits, and has the potential of becoming a legal nightmare the same as tobacco. Interestingly, most of the anti-bunker oil scientific studies have been funded by major oil companies, Chevron, BP, Shell etc. In fact, the US requires the production of of marine grade No. 6 as part of it's defence requirements. Most bunker oil, is bought from refineries as waste, and sold by small oil suppliers. The conversion of the worlds shipping fleet to less toxic fuel is not only possible, but ultimately economically beneficial.
      Dave D
      • 1 Year Ago
      Every time I read an article about this subject, it tells us the opposite of the last one I read. Starting to sound like lies, damn lies and statistics on BOTH sides.
      Smith Jim
      • 1 Year Ago
      The following article is all about CO2 but the methane signature is unmistakable in figure 1. http://www.skepticalscience.com/How-do-we-know-CO2-is-causing-warming.html
        Joeviocoe
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Smith Jim
        http://www.skepticalscience.com/methane-and-global-warming.htm :)
      Ford Future
      • 1 Year Ago
      Marco, "This is a part of an incomplete study of only two sites." The release of methane has been seen in the field for years. Just link what the fracking process does, it breaks the natural barrier's to the natural gas and methane release, there was never any guarantee it release itself only in the area of a well head. I think you're going to find the % of escaped gas is Much Higher then this initial study.
        Gabbo
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Ford Future
        ...and I think this is just wishful thinking on your part ( as well as "Nature" ....think THEY don't have a hidden agenda here ? ). You greenies won't be happy till the human race is extinct, eh ?
      Ele Truk
      • 1 Year Ago
      How backwards have you got it? Greenies wanting to have breathable air and drinkable water are threatening the human race how? The future of the human race doesn't require unlimited abillity to drive V8 power cars.
      2 wheeled menace
      • 1 Year Ago
      8 times more potent as a global warming gas. Low energy density, so it must be stored at high pressure. The casings installed in those fracking wells will eventually crack, helping whatever natural gas is left, as the earth shifts along, to escape into the atmosphere. The optimism about natural gas, and even just turning natural gas into hydrogen, is overblown.
      wartzilla
      • 1 Year Ago
      Articles like these, and articles on methane slip in engines, all seem to ignore the elephant in the room - methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2, yes, but it also decays in the atmosphere much, much faster, so in the end whether or not it's a stronger greenhouse gas is immaterial. This wasted methane ends up in the atmosphere, and decays into CO2. If it didn't leak, it would have been burned instead, making the end result the same. This waste harms the producers of natural gas. It doesn't change the equation in the long term.
        DaveMart
        • 1 Year Ago
        @wartzilla
        Indeed. From Green Car Reports: 'Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, estimated to be around 70 times stronger than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame.' Global warming is not a 20 year problem, but a long term one, and in fact: 'Methane’s chemical lifespan in the atmosphere is approximately 12 years. Because of this relatively short lifespan, reducing methane is the most effective way of improving our environment and mitigating global warming in the short-term.' http://www.flexenergy.com/media/media-kit/methane-fact-sheet/ Is there a problem? Yep. Is it severe enough to think about preferring coal to gas? Nope. At any given point in time, global temperatures will be higher than they would otherwise be if no gas was leaked. However the hundreds of years that CO2 stays in the atmosphere means that it is that that underpins any large effects from warming.
          Marco Polo
          • 1 Year Ago
          @DaveMart
          @ DaveMart Very true. Methane is a much easier problem to resolve than CO2. Within the next 10 years improvements in technology will see a significant reduction in methane emissions. Increased use of natural gas will dramatically reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide etc. Natural gas may help reduce the rate of permafrost melting , thereby reducing methane emissions!
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