Research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows the amount of methane released during natural gas extraction is much higher than originally thought.
After finding methane leaks at a rate of 4% from research near Denver, which were considered very high, NOAA examined an oil and gas field in Utah and found up to 9% of methane escapes into the atmosphere.
"We were expecting to see high methane levels, but I don’t think anybody really comprehended the true magnitude of what we would see," says Colm Sweeney, who led part of the study at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder.
NOAA's findings undermine even further the status of natural gas as a "clean energy" option. If methane is leaking at similar rates at natural gas fields across the US, that would eliminate much of the climate benefit of switching from coal to gas-fired electric plants.
Shifting to natural gas makes sense from an environmental perspective only if cumulative methane leaks are under 3.2%, based on a study by the Environmental Defense Fund and Princeton University.
Methane - the primary component of natural gas - is 25 times more potent than carbon on a pound-for-pound basis as a greenhouse gas and climate-change forcer.
Scientists are now collecting data across the country and are also analyzing emissions across the natural gas lifecycle, including production, processing, local distribution and long-distance transmission.
The natural gas industry accounts for 17% of US greenhouse gas emissions, predicted to grow to 23% as shale gas replaces conventional natural gas, in a Cornell University study.
When the US Environmental Protection Agency released air quality standards last year for the oil and gas industry, it excluded methane emissions so it could buy more time to evaluate the impact. That's prompting seven eastern states to sue the EPA to get action on methane.
Under EPA's proposed regulations operators would be required to capture methane. The natural gas industry could sell methane for a variety of applications, boosting their profits, which makes one wonder why they aren't doing it.
Part of the reason the Arctic is melting so quickly is because of methane releases and other carbon forcers.
Meanwhile, biogas is a much better form of natural gas - readily available from landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and other urban and agricultural residue streams. Biogas prevents methane emissions and could provide 4%-10% of the current US demand for natural gas, says the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.
Read, Shifting to Natural Gas Won't Slow Climate Change: