High methane and benzene emissions in Colorado gas fields

Air pollution haze at sunset over the gas field in Northeastern Colorado

Air pollution haze at sunset over the gas field in Northeastern Colorado [photo courtesy CIRES]

New Aerial Methane Study Finds High Emissions from Oil and Gas Facilities

EDF-coordinated study is the latest to underscore the urgent need for action

(WASHINGTON, D.C. – May 7, 2014) A new peer-reviewed study, led by scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at UC-Boulder, reports much higher than estimated methane emissions in Colorado’s largest oil and gas region from associated equipment and operations. Accepted today to be published in American Geophysical Union’s Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres, this study is the latest in a series of scientific reports offering substantial evidence that major reductions in methane emissions from this sector are urgently needed. The study also reports that emissions of benzene, a known carcinogen, are seven times higher than official estimates and emissions of smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are twice as high as previously estimated.

The NOAA-CIRES study, part of an ongoing methane research effort coordinated by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), comes on the heels of Colorado’s landmark regulation to limit oil and gas air pollution. Colorado is the first in the nation to directly target methane, which is commonly leaked or vented from oil and gas equipment and facilities. The new rules will curb nearly two hundred thousand tons of combined methane and VOCs annually.

“When it comes to air pollution from the oil and gas industry, Colorado is a state on the leading edge of science and regulation,” said Mark Brownstein, EDF’s associate vice president and chief counsel, US Climate & Energy. “The study underscores the importance of the steps that Colorado is taking to reduce total hydrocarbon pollution – both VOCs and methane – from oil and gas operations. I hope other states and the federal EPA are paying attention to the science and policy emerging in Colorado.”

Total methane emissions were estimated on two days in May 2012 based on methane mixing ratios in the air measured by a specially instrumented aircraft flown around the Denver-Julesburg Basin and on vertically resolved winds measured by two NOAA ground-based instruments. The portion of regional methane emissions attributed to all oil and gas activity was determined by subtracting an emission inventory of other methane sources. The study found that oil and gas operations in the basin emitted roughly 19.3 metric tonnes of methane emissions every hour, which the authors calculate as a leak rate of 4.1 percent (± 1.5) of total gas produced – an estimate almost three times higher than inventory estimates based on 2012 Environmental Protection Agency Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rule data.

These findings reinforce the fact that methane from the oil and gas sector is a problem requiring prompt action from both industry and policymakers. Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is a powerful and short-lived climate pollutant that accelerates the rate of climate change, which is contributing to more frequent and more intense extreme weather events among other serious impacts on public health and welfare. Over one-third of today’s human-caused global warming is caused by short-lived climate pollutants such as methane — and is expected to continue to do so in the absence of action, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Almost universally, recent studies have shown methane leakage rates from this industry are higher than expected nationwide, undercutting the potential climate benefits of natural gas. America’s largest industrial source of methane emissions is the U.S. oil and gas industry. Targeting reductions here is critical for the U.S. to meet its climate goals. Further, the equipment used to capture methane often has the co-benefit of reducing other harmful pollution, including VOCs and toxic air pollutants like benzene. These technologies also reduce the waste of a vital national resource and frequently save producers money through the sale of captured methane.

A recent economic analysis by ICF showed that oil and gas companies can cost-effectively reduce methane emissions by 40 percent in the next five years using available technologies. The report also found that 90 percent of the methane reduction opportunities come from repairing and modifying existing infrastructure, where current EPA regulations only focus on new sources and a limited subset of all oil and gas activities.

For more information on the NOAA-CIRES study, read this blog by EDF Chief Scientist Steve Hamburg.

EDF’s Methane Research Series

In 2012, Environmental Defense Fund spearheaded its largest scientific project to date to advance the understanding of where and how much methane is lost across today’s U.S. natural gas supply chain. This collaborative series involves partnerships with nearly 100 universities, research institutions and oil and gas companies. It is divided into 16 distinct projects that will estimate methane emissions in a given area or from specific pieces of equipment. A range of sophisticated scientific techniques are being deployed across all projects. Insights from this effort are helping inform policies and opportunities to minimize methane emissions from the natural gas supply chain.

CU-Boulder researchers confirm leaks from Front Range oil and gas operations

During two days of intensive airborne measurements, oil and gas operations in Colorado’s Front Range leaked nearly three times as much methane, a greenhouse gas, as predicted based on inventory estimates, and seven times as much benzene, a regulated air toxic. Emissions of other chemicals that contribute to summertime ozone pollution were about twice as high as estimates …

Scientists flying over Colorado oil boom find worse air pollution

Scientists have found that Colorado’s Front Range oil and gas boom has been emitting three times more methane than previously believed — 19.3 tons an hour — a climate-change problem that state officials hope new rules will address.

The scientists also measured industry emissions of cancer-causing benzene and smog-forming volatile organic compounds at levels up to seven times higher than government agencies have estimated.

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One Comment on “High methane and benzene emissions in Colorado gas fields”

  1. maryinline Says:

    Thank you for highlighting this report Peggy! Your posts are always enlightening, inspirational, and timely.

    Last night I participated in our largest gathering yet of members of the Roaring Fork Citizens Climate Lobby, in Carbondale. Seventeen people, from Glenwood to Basalt, listened to this month’s CCL guest, Dana Nucciteli, Guardian blogger and SkepticalScience.com contributor, address the economics of climate change. Referring to the same IPCC study identified in this article, Dana brilliantly captured the economic impacts climate change is already having and the future impacts it will have on all nations around the world. Immediate action is needed, as this article you’ve shared proves. Listen to this month’s CCL call to learn more. http://citizensclimatelobby.org/calls/CCL-May-2014.mp3

    The article you’ve just posted hits every nail on the head! I’ve copied some of the key points I think are deal breakers for taking action on climate change, now!

    “The study found that oil and gas operations in the basin emitted roughly 19.3 metric tons of methane emissions every hour…”

    “Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is a powerful and short-lived climate pollutant that accelerates the rate of climate change…Over one-third of today’s human-caused global warming is caused by short-lived climate pollutants such as methane — and is expected to continue to do so in the absence of action, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”

    “…recent studies have shown methane leakage rates from this industry are higher than expected nationwide, undercutting the potential climate benefits of natural gas. America’s largest industrial source of methane emissions is the U.S. oil and gas industry.”

    “These findings reinforce the fact that methane from the oil and gas sector is a problem requiring prompt action from both industry and policymakers.”

    Citizens Climate Lobby agrees that prompt action from both industry and policymakers is necessary. Citizens, like us, lobbying their elected officials on creating policy that sets a fee on carbon emissions ($ per pound), distributing that money to every citizen, is a solution CCL believes will motivate industry to reduce carbon emissions. Setting a price on emissions will reduce emissions. The more emissions industry emits, the more fees they’ll pay. They will pass on these costs to the consumer, which will influence our own consumptive behavior. This is an economic no-brainer.

    Learn more about CCL, our mission and methodology, by listening to their introduction…http://citizensclimatelobby.org/about-us/ccl-training-session/

    More CCL chapters are needed within our district. A small group of people, from each district, lobbying for legislation that will impact climate change now is something we believe is what democracy is all about. Here is a map of Tipton’s district: http://tipton.house.gov/our-district.

    Dave Reed started the Roaring Fork CCL chapter, and is more than happy to assist others who want to start their own chapters. He can be reached at 970-366-8766.

    We’ve already met with staffers from Senator Tipton’s, Udall’s, and Bennet’s offices. Some of our members are attending the June National CCL Conference in Washington, DC, and we’ve had several Letters to the Editor published.

    There’s more action and education happening with people from all over the US. The Great Climate March (http://climatemarch.org/) started March 1st, in LA. The marchers will be entering Colorado’s Front Range in early June. This is a great opportunity to support people who are taking this issue to a personal level.

    Thanks for letting me share!

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