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Methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells underestimated

Methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells underestimated

Methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells underestimated
Bubbles of methane gas in water around an unplugged oil/gas well in Pennsylvania. Credit: Mary Kang

A recent McGill study published in Environmental Science and Technology finds that annual methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas (AOG) wells in Canada and the US have been greatly underestimated—by as much as 150% in Canada, and by 20% in the US. Indeed, the research suggests that methane gas emissions from AOG wells are currently the 10th and 11th largest sources of anthropogenic methane emission in the US and Canada, respectively. Since methane gas is a more important contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide, especially over the short term, the researchers believe that it is essential to gain a clearer understanding of methane emissions from AOG wells to understand their broader environmental impacts and move towards mitigating the problem.

Multiple sources of uncertainty

The researchers show that the difficulties in estimating overall  emissions from AOG  in both countries are due to a lack of information about both the quantities of methane gas being emitted annually from AOG wells (depending on whether and how well they have been capped), and about the number of AOG wells themselves.

“Oil and gas development started in the late 1850s both in Canada and the US,” explains Mary Kang, the senior author on the paper and an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at McGill. “Many companies that dug wells have come and gone since then, so it can be hard to find records of the wells that once existed.”

Thousands of undocumented AOG wells

To determine the number of AOG wells, the researchers analyzed information from 47 state, provincial or territorial databases as well as from research articles and national repositories of drilled and active wells in the US and Canada.

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The US Oil and Gas Industry’s Methane Problem Is Catching up With It

The US Oil and Gas Industry’s Methane Problem Is Catching up With It

A laid-off oilfield worker's vest and gloves hang on a fence post in front of an idled pump jack in Eddy County, New Mexico
For years, the oil and gas industry has been able to downplay, or outright ignore, the problem of methane. Methane is an invisible gas, and lax state and federal regulations in the U.S. have allowed oil and gas producers to self-report how much of this potent planet-warming gas leaks from its supply chain, which researchers have repeatedly found is a lot more than the industry was admitting to.

But improved technologies, particularly from satellites, have allowed the world to increasingly fact-check industry numbers, shining a light on the true climate impact of natural gas, which is primarily methane. These days, methane emissions have become an industry black eye, to the point that major players are now clamoring for regulations after the Trump administration recently finalized the rollback of Obama-era rules meant to reduce methane leaks from oil and gas.

On August 24, the Houston Chronicle published an op-ed arguing for the United States to regulate methane emissions for the oil and gas industry, and it was co-written by two influential voices in the industry, Antoine Halff and Andrew Gould. Halff was formerly the head of oil analysis at the International Energy Agency, an independent, intergovernmental organization focused on energy research and policy — and notorious for its overly optimistic (and inaccurate) outlooks for fossil fuels and overly pessimistic views on renewables. Gould is the former CEO of Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company. Gould also currently serves on the board of Occidental Petroleum Corporation — one of the largest fracking companies among the Permian oilfields of Texas.

Halff and Gould were writing in response to the Trump administration’s repeal of existing methane regulations. However, as a sign of the changing times, they argued that regulating the greenhouse gas is simply good business for the oil and gas industry.

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US Study Confirms Rapid Increase of Methane Emissions by Oil and Gas

US Study Confirms Rapid Increase of Methane Emissions by Oil and Gas

Spike corresponds with timing of shale gas boom.

Another U.S. scientific study has confirmed that methane emissions from oil and gas activity are increasing more rapidly than previously estimated, and that these increases were happening at the same time that the North American shale gas boom and related fracking frenzy took off.

The latest study, one of several major scientific papers on growing global methane emissions published this past year, found that methane venting and leaks from oil and gas activity stabilized in the early 1980s and ‘90s and then dramatically escalated between 2000 and 2008.

“Overall fossil fuel emissions didn’t change a lot until 2000, and then it really ramps up,” reported Andrew Rice, a climate scientist at Portland State University.

Although the timing corresponds with the shale gas and fracking boom, the study did not identify shale gas sources or distinguish emissions from hydraulic fracturing in North America from other fugitive fossil fuel sources.

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With New Tools, A Focus On Urban Methane Leaks

With New Tools, A Focus On Urban Methane Leaks 

Until recently, little was known about the extent of methane leaking from urban gas distribution pipes and its impact on global warming. But recent advances in detecting this potent greenhouse gas are pushing U.S. states to begin addressing this long-neglected problem.

Battered by storms and weakened with age, the natural gas distribution pipes of urban New Jersey have long been in need of repair. And for a long time, the state’s largest utility, Public Service and Enterprise Group (PSE&G), has wanted to replace them. The problem is that pipelines cost upwards of $1.3 million per mile, and the utility owns 4,330 miles of it. Replacing it all would cost at least $6 billion, not to mention decades of work.

In December 2014, however, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) approached the utility with a solution. Using new technology that can trace methane emissions back to their sources with great precision,

Jukka Isokoski
Workers install a natural gas pipeline.

researchers could home in on the highest-risk pipes, allowing the utility to prioritize repairs along the worst offending lines. EDF and its collaborators, from Colorado State University and Google Earth Outreach, then spent six months gathering data the utility could use.

The state’s Board of Public Utilities, which determines how much money PSE&G can raise from its customers and how it can spend it, had earlier rejected a request from the utility to raise $1.6 billion for 800 miles of new pipeline. But after the results of the monitoring effort were in, the utility narrowed its request to 510 miles of pipeline replacement, at a cost of $905 million over three years. Work on the project begins this month.

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California’s Massive Gas Leak: Hazards of Industry Long Known

California’s Massive Gas Leak: Hazards of Industry Long Known

Expert research, public record details many risks of underground gas storage.


Overhead photo of the leaking Aliso Canyon well pad near the Porter Ranch community in Los Angeles County, Dec. 17, 2015. Credit: Earthworks, Creative Commons licensed.

A massive methane leak from an aging underground gas storage facility in a community north of Los Angeles illustrates the grave environmental and safety hazards that come with operating gas storage fields near cities due to the frequency of well leaks, experts have shown.

Since Oct. 23, thousands of citizens have been displaced or sickened with nosebleeds and headaches by hydrocarbon pollution from a leaky injection well site at the Aliso Canyon storage facility, one of the largest underground storage sites in North America.

Industry stores methane underground in depleted oil and gas fields, aquifers or salt caverns for future use because it is more economic than storing the gas in tanks on the surface.


The gas storage industry, now 90 years old, has experienced lots of gas migration problems and its facilities “can create a serious risk of explosions and risks especially when located in urban settings,” say the petroleum experts who authored Gas Migration.

Leaks occur through faults, wells and cracks in cap rock. Operators admit that during the 50-year life of any operation, methane will leak and erupt into aquifers, soils and the atmosphere.

Decades ago, scientists compared storing methane underground (the gas is lighter than air) to building a room for a bunch of feral cats all trying to escape.

The following incidents illustrate that the Aliso Canyon disaster represents just one of the hazards of injecting and storing gases underground.

Moss Bluff, Texas, 2004: An explosion at this facility north of Houston lit up the sky with 200-foot flames and damaged a wellhead. As a result, the facility released nearly $30-million worth of methane into the atmosphere. More than 100 local residents were evacuated.

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Arctic methane emissions persist in winter

Arctic methane emissions persist in winter


Summer and winter, wet and dry, high and low, the Arctic tundra continues to emit methane.
Image: Bureau of Land Management (Delta WSR) via Wikimedia Commons

Methane, a key greenhouse gas, is released from Arctic soils not only in the short summer period but during the bitterly cold winters too. 

LONDON, 22 December, 2015 – The quantity of methane leaking from the frozen soil during the long Arctic winters is probably much greater than climate models estimate, scientists have found.

They say at least half of annual methane emissions occur in the cold months from September to May, and that drier, upland tundra can emit more methane than wetlands.

The multinational team, led by San Diego State University (SDSU) in the US and including colleagues from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the University of Sheffield and the Open University in the UK, have published their conclusion, which challenges critical assumptions in current global climate models, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is about 25 times more powerful per molecule than carbon dioxide over a century, but more than 84 times over 20 years. The methane in the Arctic tundra comes primarily from organic matter trapped in soil which thaws seasonally and is decomposed by microbes. 

It seeps naturally from the soil over the course of the year, but climate change can warm the soil enough to release more methane from organic matter that is currently stable in the permafrost

“Virtually all the climate models assume there’s no or very little emission of methane when the ground is frozen. That assumption is incorrect”

Scientists have for some years been accurately measuring Arctic methane emissions and incorporating the results into their climate models. But crucially, the SDSU team says, almost all of these measurements have been obtained during the Arctic’s short summer. 

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Natural Gas Needs To Clean Up Its Act

Natural Gas Needs To Clean Up Its Act

To call natural gas ‘clean’ would be a misnomer. Natural gas is a fossil fuel that emits carbon dioxide when burned and is an important contributor to climate change. The general consensus, however, is that when compared to oil (and petroleum products) or coal, natural gas it is by far the ‘cleaner’ choice for providing base-load power generation, heating homes, and for a series of other industrial and transport applications.

Still, the debate over methane emissions from natural gas production, transport, and distribution calls into question this assumption.

A new study by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) examined the methane emissions from natural gas production on federal and tribal lands. The study found that total natural gas loss, including flaring, amounted to 65 billion cubic feet (bcf) in 2013, or enough to meet the heating and cooking needs of around 1.6 million homes.

The implications of the study are serious. Not only does natural gas loss represent a waste of finite natural resources but it makes a significant and unnecessary contribution to the already seemingly impossible task of combating climate change.

Related: Can This Next Shale Hotspot Live Up To The Hype?

While methane (the major component of natural gas) has a far shorter lifespan than carbon dioxide, it is more efficient at trapping radiation, making the impacton climate change 25 times greater over a 100 year period. Over 20 years, methane’s warming potential is 84 times greater than CO2.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane accounts for around 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, almost 30 percent of which came from the production, transport, and distribution of oil and natural gas.

The latest study is part of a much broader effort by the Environmental Defense Fund to measure methane emissions across the United States, not just on federal and tribal lands. In an earlier study released last year, the EDF argued that adoption of existing technologies and operating practices, as simple as more frequent inspections, could help the U.S. reduce methane emissions by 40 percent by 2018.


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