Methane emissions are vastly undercounted at the state and national level because we’re missing accidental leaks from oil and gas wells, according to a new study.
Methane is a greenhouse gas that, when initially released, is about 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide at driving global warming (it doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere, however, so when averaged over a century methane is about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide at driving global warming). Methane causes about 25 percent of human-driven climate change according to the Environmental Defense Fund, and the oil and gas industry is the leading emitter of methane. Last year, global atmospheric methane reached a 20-year high.
The new study, conducted by researchers at Cornell University and published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, looked at 589,175 operator reports on methane leaks from both fracking and conventional oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania from 2014-2018. The researchers found that methane emissions in the state are at least 15 percent higher than previously thought—and they believe a similar under-counting is happening at the national level.
“Another 15 percent of methane going into the atmosphere that we didn’t know about is very significant for climate change in the short term,” Tony Ingraffea, professor emeritus of engineering at Cornell and the study’s lead author, told EHN.
Ingraffea also authored a groundbreaking study in 2011 that determined methane emissions from fracking accelerate global warming more than carbon dioxide emissions from either coal or conventional oil and gas. Pennsylvania is the second largest producer of natural gas in the country after Texas. Ingraffea’s study comes on the heels of a study published this week by Harvard researchers that found methane emissions in the Permian basin in Texas and New Mexico are more than two times higher than federal estimates.
Methane exposure is rarely a threat to human health except under extreme circumstances, but “as a climate change exacerbator,” Ingraffea said, “it affects the health of every human on the planet.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) has required all oil and gas well operators in the state to measure and report the amount of methane leaking from producing wells four times since 2014. No other state has such extensive methane leak monitoring, and this study, which took three years to complete, marks the first time the data has ever been analyzed.
While other studies have estimated methane leaks from oil and gas, such as flying over gas wells in aircrafts with methane detection equipment, this is the first to use data that’s been self-reported by oil and gas well operators.
“This is a profoundly important database,” Ingraffea said. “There’s nothing comparable happening in any other part of America.”EHN