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Peter Lehner’s Blog

Fracking's Dark Side Gets Darker: The Problem of Methane Waste

Peter Lehner

Posted October 15, 2012

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Fracking for oil in North Dakota is so lucrative that when natural gas bubbles up alongside the oil, most oil companies simply view it as waste. It's cheaper, in the short term, to burn the gas than it is to build the infrastructure to pipe and sell it--so they burn it. Across the North Dakota prairie, natural gas flares light up the night sky like huge torches. Every day, they burn off enough gas to heat half a million homes.

The risks and challenges of extracting natural gas, and fracking, in particular, have been written about extensively, by my colleagues and in many other articles, lawsuits, and scientific studies. Given these challenges, it is astounding to discover how much natural gas we are wasting every day, either through burning or poorly managed leaks. By reducing this waste, we can clean the air and water, cut global warming pollution, and, as is the case when we become more efficient--make money.

Natural gas is mostly methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Pound for pound, methane is at least 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, over a 100-year period, and as much as 100 times more powerful over a 20-year period. Releasing increasing amounts of it into the atmosphere could accelerate the pace of climate change. Because methane acts faster than carbon dioxide, and doesn't linger as long in the atmosphere, scientists see an opportunity to quickly reduce the risk of incurring extreme climate disruption by cutting methane pollution.

The World Bank estimates that in North Dakota alone, natural gas flares produce the same amount of global warming pollution as 2.5 million cars. Across the board, the oil and gas industry wastes two to three percent of all the natural gas in the country, according to the EPA, due to flaring, leaks, and other waste. Other experts think this number is even higher, and that unconventional gas production, like fracking, wastes up to 8 percent.

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Methane levels spike downwind from a large natural gas facility near Flower Mound, TX. (Source: Picarro Inc., California)

Regulating fracking with strong environmental safeguards will help protect people's health and dramatically reduce methane waste. It will also encourage the industry to become more efficient. Many companies are already using commercially available technologies to control methane leakage. A process called green completion, for example, captures liquids and gases coming out of wells after they are fracked, and routes them to a separate tank for processing.

Companies that have been using the process for years say it's smart business. A spokesman for Devon Energy, based in Oklahoma City, told Bloomberg News: "We are capturing value that would otherwise be lost.  It does make good economic sense for us.” At Southwestern Energy, the president of the drilling unit simply said, "We're making money."

In addition to green completions, a host of other cost-effective techniques, such as better pipes, and improved monitoring and maintenance, which pay for themselves within a few years, or even months, can dramatically reduce methane leakage. If these practices were widespread, we could stop 80 percent of methane waste across the industry, and recover $2 billion worth of natural gas. It would reduce global warming pollution equivalent to the emissions of 50 coal-fired power plants, or 40 million passenger vehicles.

Colorado and Wyoming already require green completions for many natural gas wells; the EPA has issued a new rule that requires green completion for many natural gas wells nationwide. However, the rule will only go into effect in 2015, and in the meantime--and even after the rule is implemented--there will continue to be many natural gas wells, as well as all oil wells, that still leak methane.  

Plugging up methane leaks is a critical tool in our efforts to reduce global warming pollution. It's also a cost-effective way for the oil and gas industry to stop wasting energy and become more efficient--and an important step forward in cleaning up dirty, disruptive fracking operations.

 [This post is part of our Wasteland series, featuring people, towns, businesses and industries that are finding innovative ways to cut waste, boost efficiency and save money, time and valuable resources.]

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Lisa Ann WrightOct 15 2012 02:49 PM

Hi Peter-

Thanks for highlighting the problems of flaring in ND. I have a question-

Michael Levi just posted leakage rates are lower than NOAA study- so who is right? The difference between 2 and 8 percent seems quite significant.

"I find methane leakage rates that are most likely between 1 and 2 percent, very similar to what previous careful estimates have consistently indicated, but far lower than the rates — as high as 7.7 percent — that the NOAA study claimed."

Michael BerndtsonOct 15 2012 02:56 PM

This issue really erodes the natural gas as a "bridge" energy argument used by many of the "common sense" policy makers. Natural resource exploitation really doesn't look much past the spot price to make a decision. At the moment oil from the Bakken is the driving force in determining return on investment. Since a quick return is usually more beneficial to an investor, up-front capital costs for gas separation and processing would only prolong a return - regardless of future operating revenue from gas. Investor pools are disproportionately tied to fossil fuel exploitation and a quick return on investment. Rather than renewable only or natural gas and renewable combination investments, which tend towards longer range investment returns.

One can probably blame risk factors for short sighted economic decision making, i.e. uncertainty in future price of oil and gas - resulting from possible price drop - as renewables become more competitive and dare I say conservation measures implemented for climate change mitigation. So the investment thinking becomes: why should one plan five or ten years out for uncertain returns - when a killing can be made in 2 to 3 years.

Michael BerndtsonOct 15 2012 04:47 PM

Not to answer Lisa Ann's question addressed to Peter - but I will. Michael Levi's article summarizes his paper he submitted to the Journal of Geophysical Research, which is an analysis of fugitive emissions from shale-gas wells in general. Not specifically North Dakota Bakken wells. The purpose of his article was to contest the results of NOAA's findings. The Bakken formation is pretty much an oil play with gas produced as a by-product and is generally flared. Capture and flaring gas during oil production tends to have higher fugitive emissions then gas only production. As Mike Levi's article and paper mentioned, a comprehensive study on fugitive methane emissions for shale gas wells is being conducted this fall with results presented sometime first quarter 2013.

Ira JinkinsOct 16 2012 05:18 PM

I have a question in reference to using water and chemical mixture to break the rock formation to expedite the methane gas, would it be feasible to use compressed air instead of water and chemicals? I ask this question because we do have a limited supply of clean water for humans, animals and corp irrigation. I am concerned with the priority of getting rich quick and not addressing the long term consequences of the actions of the oil, gas and coal industries.

Environmental EngineerOct 16 2012 06:53 PM

Ira: The difference is that air is a compressible fluid, while water is nearly incompressible. Also, it is actually safer to be use an incompressible fluid because a pipe rupture or hose break will be much less catastrophic. Imagine you have a pipe full of compressed air. To double the pressure in the pipe, you would need to pump a very large amount of gas into the line. An amount equal to the mass of gas already in the pipe would double the pressure. Double the total volume again (four times the original) and you increase the pressure again by a factor of two. But with an incompressible fluid in the pipe instead, you need only add a tiny amount of additional fluid to raise the pressure greatly. The liquid in the pipe doesn't compress. You only have to add enough liquid to make up for the small increase in diameter of the pipe due to increased pressure. On the safety issue, the opposite effect occurs. If the pipe ruptures, only a small amout of water is released before the pressure falls to harmless levels. If the pipe was full of air, a huge volume of air would have to escape before the pressue dropped significantly. In the mean time, a small pipe break becomse a large mass of broken metal and debris flying out of the hole in an explosive manner.

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