Fracking’s Methane Trail: A Detective Story
A natural gas drilling rig’s lights shimmer in the evening light near Silt, Colo.
There are a lot of cheerleaders for the nation’s natural gas boom — in part because they believe it’s a lot cleaner than dirty coal. It’s pretty well-known that power plants that burn coal pump out far more greenhouse gases than power plants that run on natural gas.
But there’s a hitch: We don’t really know how much air pollution is created when companies drill for natural gas.
‘Not So Many Measurements’
Well heads, storage tanks and pipelines all leak methane in sprawling gas fields.
“We need to know a lot about methane itself, which is natural gas, if we’re worried about climate change,” says energy consultant Sue Tierney, “so that we don’t automatically think that gas is so much cleaner than coal.”
Science And The Fracking Boom: Missing Answers
Explore key components of the natural gas production process — and the questions scientists are asking.
Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. It’s very effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
“Fifty years from now, are we really going to be wondering if we really screwed up because we went on this big gas boom? You really wouldn’t want to be messing that up,” Tierney says.
She says that’s why it’s so important to study air pollution from natural gas production now.
Tierney was on an Energy Department advisory panel that recommended that gas companies start measuring and reporting their air emissions.
The way it is now, the government doesn’t really know how much methane comes from gas production.
“What the official estimates are based on generally are not so many measurements, but rather estimates,” says Greg Frost, an air pollution expert for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “They really are based on maybe a measurement here or there, but then they’re largely based on extrapolation.”
To really find out how much methane is being leaked, many scientists say you need to take lots of direct measurements: How much methane is coming off a well, or a pipeline, or a whole gas field?
Finding The Methane Source