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Methane Leaks From Oil And Gas Are Worse Than Expected, Study Finds

Researchers used a variety of techniques, on the ground and from the air, to detect methane emissions at oil and gas facilities across the country.
Environmental Defense Fund
Researchers used a variety of techniques, on the ground and from the air, to detect methane emissions at oil and gas facilities across the country.

A study in the journal Science says a lot more methane is leaking from oil & gas sites than previously thought -- about 60 percent more than the current estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Leaking methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is bad for a lot of reasons. For one, it’s a waste of fuel -- like letting money float off into the air.

“It would be equivalent to the gas that could supply about 10 million homes per year with their natural gas needs. It’s also about $2 billion in value,” says David Lyon, an environmental scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund and an author on the study.

Ramon Alvarez, another scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, says methane is also bad for the climate.

“When it leaks into the atmosphere, it’s a potent greenhouse gas,” says Alvarez. “The estimates are that a quarter of the warming experienced today globally is from methane.”

Alvarez, Lyon and their colleagues on the study, including researchers at a dozen universities, studied oil- and gas-producing areas across the country including at sites in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. They used helicopters with infrared cameras to detect big methane emissions. They also took measurements on the ground, downwind of natural gas facilities, to measure changes in methane concentrations.

Based on data from 2015, they estimate that, over the course of 20 years, the climate impact of all those emissions from the oil and gas supply chain are about as bad as emissions from the country’s coal-fired power plants.

They also concluded that a lot of the methane emissions they detected are avoidable, like those emanating from leaky storage tanks.

In a statement, a spokesperson with the EPA said the agency tracks greenhouse gas emissions every year and that it's “looking forward to reviewing this study.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Copyright 2020 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.
Rae Ellen Bichell
I cover the Rocky Mountain West, with a focus on land and water management, growth in the expanding west, issues facing the rural west, and western culture and heritage. I joined KUNC in January 2018 as part of a new regional collaboration between stations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. Please send along your thoughts/ideas/questions!
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