A recent study underscores the importance of capturing methane emissions from producing natural gas wells to not only deliver economic benefits for the industry but make a significant stab at reducing harmful pollution in the war on climate change.
The Utah research demonstrates that northeastern Utah’s Uinta Basin is among the “leakiest” in the nation when it comes to fugitive methane emissions.
The study does concede that the Uinta Basin may not represent other producing natural gas regions in the United States but it revealed the high leakage rate of 6% to 8% in that region is much higher than the national average of less than 2.3% — at least in part due to an abundance of low-producing wells.
Escaping methane that is not combusted is a big deal. The research says it has an eye-popping high global warming potential 84 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20 year horizon.
“Considering the information yielded by in-situ observations shown in this study and the need to track trends in methane emissions to track progress toward U.S. emission goals, this study demonstrates an urgent need” for longer-term methane emissions monitoring, it said.
The study was released in November and involved the University of Utah’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences and Utah State University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, among other researchers.
Seth Lyman with USU’s Uinta Basin campus said the study provides a blueprint for hope.
“I feel optimistic that this is telling us that even with higher production and better controls, this problem, these methane emissions, this is something that we can manage,” he said. “This showed as the rate of natural gas production dropped, then methane emissions dropped proportionately.”
The study is built around one of the longest-running data sets in the Uinta Basin and shows that methane emissions approximately halved between 2015 and 2020, along with declining natural gas production.
Lyman said the Uinta Basin may not be the worst in the nation for methane emissions as a percentage of production, but it is in the top tier because of the percentage of older wells.
“So we’ve known for some time that the Uinta Basin is a fairly high methane emitter compared to other regions around the country,” Lyman said, but the latest research shows a baseline for the correlation between declining production and declining escape rates.
Pollution problems have dogged the Uinta Basin for years, particularly in the winter when ozone swamps the region.
Methane is not a regulated pollutant by the federal government, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced in November proposed new rules for its control.
The pollution issue is complicated for Utah, which has oversight of only 20% of the producing oil and gas wells in the state — with the rest being on federal or tribal lands.
Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said detecting methane leaks helps to address the climate change issue, but also the highly sophisticated equipment can detect leaks of other pollutants, such as volatile organic compounds that contribute to the formation of ozone — extremely harmful to public health.
In 2016, the state put in place regulations for equipment upgrades at well sites and the requirement that the industry “flare” emissions and not simply let them escape through venting.
“When you put it through a flare and then combust it, it converts it into carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and some nitrogen dioxides comes off of that, but that is much less impactful than the direct emissions of either the volatile organic compounds or the methane,” Bird said.
Funding provided by the Utah Legislature facilitated the ULend program in which infrared cameras, valued at $100,000, are lent to small oil and gas producers to detect leaks.
Bird said the program accomplishes a couple of different wins — helping producers stop leaks and recover a marketable product, and of course the resulting pollution reductions.
Ideally, Bird stressed, a pipeline system in the basin would greatly solve pollution problems for both producers and the state as regulators.
“Flaring is preferable to venting, but what would be ideal is if the infrastructure could be upgraded to capture that resource, rather than vent or flare into the atmosphere.”
Logan Mitchell, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah, analyzed the data.
“This represents, if you look at all Utah greenhouse gas emissions, this is an additional 30% of what we know we are emitting. It is coming from a wasted product being leaked to the atmosphere” Mitchell said. “There is a huge climate impact we are not aware of.”
He said methane emissions in Utah, converted to carbon dioxide, is equal to the pollution emitted by all transportation sectors in Utah.
“It’s pretty mind-boggling,” he said. “It should give Utah direction on reducing emissions and deploying clean energy.”