Study finds methane pollution grows even after drilling stops

GAS FLARES — Some natural gas drillers or processors flare off excess gases to reduce the risk of an explosion. A new study shows methane pollution can grow even after drilling slows in an area. -- Casey Junkins

WHEELING — Long after the drilling rigs and frack trucks are gone, methane pollution from natural gas extraction continues to grow, according to researchers at Philadelphia’s Drexel University.

Industry leaders, however, continue to emphasize that the use of their fuel to produce electricity results in lower carbon dioxide pollution compared to coal, while citing statistics showing the amount of methane in the air declined as production of natural gas increased.

Methane is the main component in natural gas, which is mainly used for heat and electricity generation. Environmental Protection Agency data show emissions of the compound fell nearly 15 percent from 1990-2014, at the same time natural gas production increased by 47 percent.

“Thanks to industry efforts over the past several decades, the U.S. is leading the world in reducing emissions – down to near 20-year lows – all while energy production has been going up significantly,” Erik Milito, upstream director for the Washington, D.C.-based American Petroleum Institute, said late last year while testifying before Congress. “In a dynamic, innovation-driven industry like energy, the U.S. should not put in place prescriptive regulations on technological improvements or shrink opportunities for investments that have the potential to deliver environmental benefits and consumer savings for years to come.”

In 2015, the Obama administration’s EPA announced mandates for drillers to eventually cut methane pollution by 45 percent. According to information now on the Trump administration’s EPA website, methane is up to 36 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. However, methane does not stay in the atmosphere as long as the carbon dioxide, the agency adds.

For the Drexel methane study, researchers headed to the heavily drilled northeastern Pennsylvania portion of the Marcellus Shale region. Even as the number of active drilling rigs fell in the area, researchers said they found atmospheric methane levels on the rise. Drexel chemistry professor Peter DeCarlo, one of the study’s organizers, said this could be due to insufficient pollution reduction measures. Also, natural gas production and processing take place long after drilling is finished.

“Methane is increasing globally, but the rate of increase for this region is much more rapid than global increases,” he said. “With the increased background levels of methane, the relative climate benefit of natural gas over coal for power production is reduced.”

According to DeCarlo, air measurements in this area showed 1,960 parts per billion in 2012, but climbed by another 100 parts per billion by 2015.

In areas without shale extraction, the amount of methane in the air climbed by only six parts per billion during the same time frame, DeCarlo said.

“Though the rate at which new wells are being drilled and completed has slowed down, the overall infrastructure and production has increased,” DeCarlo said. “If the leakage rate of methane is constant per cubic foot of gas, it would not be surprising that the background methane has increased as much as it has while other pollutants like carbon monoxide, which is more associated with drilling and trucking, are showing a decline.”

However, API President and CEO Jack Gerard maintains his industry is helping to curb overall air pollution.

“The U.S. leads the world in the production and refining of oil and natural gas, as well as in the reduction of carbon emissions,” he said.


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