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University of Texas at Austin Study Measures Methane Emissions Released from Natural Gas Production

Photo of Dr. David Allen

A research team led by The University of Texas at Austin, and including engineering and environmental testing firms URS and Aerodyne Research, is conducting a major field study to measure methane emissions from natural gas production, about which little empirical data exist. With a goal of obtaining scientifically rigorous, representative data from multiple producing basins, the study brings together Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the university and nine of the nation's leading natural gas producers: Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, BG Group plc, Chevron, Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc., Pioneer Natural Resources Company, Shell, Southwestern Energy, Talisman Energy, USA, and XTO Energy, an ExxonMobil subsidiary.

The study, set for completion in January 2013, seeks to estimate the methane emission rates from participating companies' natural gas production, including hydraulically fractured wells, by conducting direct measurement techniques at a sample of natural gas production sites. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas that can be released into the atmosphere during natural gas production, processing and transportation. A greater understanding of the amount of methane emitted into the atmosphere can better inform sound policies and management of emissions from well sites.

"This study is unparalleled in its scope and approach," said David Allen, the principal investigator of the study and director of the Cockrell School of Engineering's Center for Energy and Environmental Resources. "Through the data our research team collects from wells and facilities in the nation's major shale producing areas and the data we receive from the nine participating natural gas producers, we hope to bring hard, scientific findings to an environmental issue that is still not well understood."

Large amounts of natural gas are now domestically available because of dramatic advancements in technology. Tapping these resources creates significant economic and energy security benefits for the nation. Natural gas also burns substantially cleaner than other fossil fuels, and increased use of shale natural gas in power generation is helping reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. However, some reports have raised questions about the overall effect of natural gas usage on total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions because of widely varying assumptions concerning the potential emissions of methane during the extraction and production processes. Just how much methane is released into the atmosphere during these processes is highly uncertain because the measured data is limited and drilling and completion processes have evolved rapidly in recent years. The less methane leaked into the atmosphere, the more the climate benefits of using natural gas as compared to other fossil fuels are preserved.

"The study is unique in that it brings multiple, key stakeholders to the table to make measurements of emissions at the well-pad. If we want natural gas to be an accepted part of a strategy for improving energy security and moving to a clean energy future, it is critical for all of us to work together to quantify and reduce methane emissions as may be appropriate. Such a strategy could yield enormous environmental and health benefits," said Mark Brownstein, chief counsel to EDF's national energy program and head of EDF's natural gas efforts.

Findings from the study could help guide how companies, states and the federal government measure, monitor and manage methane emissions. Industry participants in the study are providing university researchers access to production facilities in many of the nation's key shale plays, including the Barnett, Eagle Ford, Fayetteville, Haynesville, Denver-Julesberg and Marcellus.

The participants all support advancing the science related to air emissions from natural gas production activities, and they look forward to accurate and fact based scientific results.

Field measurements for the study began in May and will continue through early fall. The major focus of the field work is quantifying emissions from well completions, gas well liquid unloading and well workovers — activities that have not been extensively characterized to date — in addition to other routine well-site fugitive emissions. A Scientific Advisory Panel, composed of six academic experts in fields relevant to the study, is acting as an independent adviser for the study. Final results of the study will be published in a peer-reviewed journal and made publically available.

David Allen, the principal investigator of this research study, also serves on the Science Advisory Board for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and as a consultant for several industry groups. He has submitted a disclosure of outside interest to The University of Texas at Austin in accordance with its conflict of interest policies.