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Trapped methane bubble underneath frozen Abraham Lake in Canada. Getty Image via NewsCred

Hurricane aircraft equals methane detector

When it comes to researching methane coming from shale plays, you wouldn’t think to use an aircraft used to fly through hurricanes, or would you?

Scientist from the University of Colorado are trying to figure out how much natural gas leaks from shale gas production and to do so they flew the NOAA aircraft, which is used for flying through hurricanes.  They flew the aircraft over shale plays in Pennsylvania, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas to measure the amount of methane that was escaping from shale operations.

During 2013 while flying the NOAA aircraft over Northeast Pennsylvania, the scientists discovered natural gas leaking at a rate of 0.18 to.41 percent of production from the Marcellus Shale formation.  Compared to the data recorded from Utah’s Uinta Basin, which were 6.2 to 11.7 percent of production, the numbers from the Marcellus are much lower.  The only downfall to the data collected is that it is limited to one day, emissions can vary daily, even hourly.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Associate Vice President Mark Brownstein commented on the research on the EDF’s blog:

More robust studies that cover longer time periods actually suggest methane emissions are often higher than previously estimated. EDF’s own studies – including two released last week looking at the transmission and storage and gathering and processing sectors of the oil and gas industry – have repeatedly shown that random leaks and malfunctions are a major source of emissions.

Because these events are random, a one-day overflight will not give a full picture of emissions coming from a basin over a day, a month, or a year. What is needed is regular and ongoing monitoring.

Reported by State Impact Pennsylvania, “Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are gathering data about methane leaks by measuring emissions at ground level. Albert Presto is the lead researcher on the project. Presto says typically, he’s seen wells where the methane leaks are less than one percent. But then there can be very large emitters.” Presto compared the leaks to cars:

The same thing happens with cars … There are lots and lots of cars on the road, and once a week you might drive behind one with black smoke [streaming from the exhaust pipe.] Well, gas wells are similar.

Currently the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not regulate methane as a pollutant.  However, the EPA has recently considered limiting methane leaks from oil and gas operations, which has brought methane to the forefront.  Since natural gas production has boomed, the switch from coal-fired power plants to natural gas has been a hot topic in recent weeks.  Coal, which is the dirtiest fuel available, emits pollutants that can cause asthma and lung cancer, along with greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.  Methane, on the other hand, burns a lot cleaner at the power plant.  The only negative that is if it released into the atmosphere it can be an extremely damaging greenhouse gas in the short term, even more than CO2.

The study the researchers conducted was published last week in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmosphere.

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