Federal environmental agencies are underestimating methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells by 20% in the United States and 150% in Canada, according to a McGill University study published late last month in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, one of several in recent weeks that have pointed to a mounting crisis in releases of the climate-busting gas.
From oil and gas operations and abandoned wells in North America, to urban gas lines in Europe, to farms in China and coal mines everywhere, the reports point to unexpectedly high emissions of a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the crucial, 20-year span when humanity will be scrambling to get climate change under control.
The McGill study, co-authored by civil engineering professor Mary Kang, found that “methane leaking out of the more than four million abandoned oil and gas wells in the United States and Canada is a far greater contributor to climate change than government estimates suggest,” Reuters reports. It estimated that a further 500,000 wells in the U.S. and 60,000 in Canada are undocumented.
“Oil and gas development started in the late 1850s both in Canada and the U.S.,” Kang said in a university news release. “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.”
Based on nearly 600 direct measurements in seven U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, the researchers determined that officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment and Climate Change Canada “had come up with emissions estimates that were far too low,” while suffering from a lack of data from major fossil jurisdictions like Texas and Alberta, Reuters says.
“We see that methane emissions from abandoned wells can vary regionally, highlighting the importance of gathering measurements from Texas and Alberta which have the highest percentage of wells in the U.S. and Canada and no prior measurements,” said first author and McGill Engineering PhD student James P. Williams.
And Kang warned the urgency behind those measurements is bound to increase. “As society transitions away from fossil fuels, the millions of oil and gas wells around the world will be abandoned,” she said in the release. “It is critical to determine the climate, air, water, and other environmental impacts of these wells quickly.”
Last June, Reuters published its own extensive analysis that pointed to the U.S. as a focal point for methane releases from abandoned wells. “More than a century of oil and gas drilling has left behind millions of abandoned wells, many of which are leaching pollutants into the air and water,” the news agency wrote at the time. “And drilling companies are likely to abandon many more wells due to bankruptcies, as oil prices struggle to recover from historic lows after the coronavirus pandemic crushed global fuel demand.”
Last October, an interactive map developed by GHGSat, a Canadian emissions monitoring service, showed atmospheric methane concentrations rising 10% in just two decades, The Canadian Press reported at the time.
The problem of poor methane measurement and control extends beyond North America. Even with COVID-19 lockdowns driving down oil and gas production last year, the global industry still emitted 70 million tonnes of the climate-busting gas, equivalent to all the EU’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, the International Energy Agency reported last month. The total was about 10% less than the industry’s record-setting output in 2019, largely due to reduced output from Venezuela and Libya, and from U.S. shale fields. But IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol warned that trend could reverse as the global economy emerges from the pandemic.
“The task now for the oil and gas industry is to make sure that there is no resurgence in methane emissions, even as the world economy recovers, and that 2019 becomes their historical peak,” he said. “There is no good reason to allow these harmful leaks to continue, and there is every reason for responsible operators to ensure that they are addressed.”
But at least one jurisdiction known for its standoffish approach to methane regulation appears to have missed the memo. Up to 40% of the natural gas due to be burned off, or flared, in Texas’ Permian Basin “could be avoided at no cost to drillers if regulators abandoned their hands-off approach to the controversial practice,” Bloomberg reported last week, citing a new report by Rystad Energy on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). What the industry calls “routine” flaring “is driven mainly by companies’ failure to adequately plan for the associated gas that’s produced alongside oil,” the news story explains, and “is set to rebound as oil prices recover.”
“Coming at this initially, we expected there would be potentially large challenges for the industry to overcome from a financial perspective,” said Rystad principal Mike McCormick, but it turned out that “a lot of this is avoidable.”
While the McGill study, the IEA, and Rystad/EDF focused on the methane fossils deliberately emit (or, at least, knowingly fail to control) from “upstream” oil and gas infrastructure, other analysis pointed to wider gaps in methane regulation, along with a massive legacy of leaky pipes and other infrastructure.
In December, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that a loophole in carbon accounting guidance from the non-profit Carbon Disclosure Project had made it possible for European pipeliners, known as transmission system operators (TSOs), to “market themselves as low-carbon businesses and avoid reporting on the climate effects of the natural gas they transport.” The Cleveland-based institute profiled five TSOs it said were under-reporting their emissions “by a factor of at least 100”.
The gap in the rules “makes it much easier for TSOs to market themselves as leaders of the energy transition, aligned with European Union emission reduction targets,” said IEEFA energy finance analyst and report co-author Arjun Flora. “They are talking about net-zero targets while completely ignoring their largest source of emissions—end use of the fossil fuel gas they transport. By raising billions of Euros in ‘sustainable financing,’ they are diverting investor funds from more sustainable energy value chains.”
While the EU decided in December to withhold financing from new fossil fuel projects, IEEFA said the TSOs’ reporting practices prevent investors from “visualizing the magnitude” of emission reduction efforts from their existing assets.
“TSOs are really missing an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to energy transition,” Flora said. “By providing full disclosure they could set meaningful targets and demonstrate a successful transition to zero-carbon gases over the coming decades.”
“By not reporting the end-use carbon emissions of the gas they transport, these TSOs are effectively saying that they do not care how the gas is used, including whether it is burned, emitting carbon dioxide, or used in other ways that entail lower emissions,” added study co-author and IEEFA finance consultant Gerard Wynn. “Such indifference is outdated in the energy world in which we live today.”
Decrepit gas lines in urban centres are a whole other matter, Bloomberg Green writes, in a story last week on MEMO2, a seven-country research project training scientists to track methane leaks from fossil production facilities and city infrastructure across Europe. The researchers “are finding that the pipes delivering all that gas are a lot leakier than utility companies understand,” the news report states, with one paper in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics reporting 81 apparent leaks in Utrecht, The Netherlands, and 145 in Hamburg, Germany.
In addition to its dire climate impact, leaked methane “contributes to ground-level ozone, which exacerbates asthma—a pressing health concern in communities of colour, where the condition is more prevalent,” the news agency notes. “It can also explode, if allowed to build up in a closed space.”
While the U.S. EPA has concluded that fossil distribution networks account for just 7% of methane emissions from natural gas, more recent studies suggest that, too, may be an underestimate. Studies have pointed to a 2.7% leak rate in Boston’s distribution network. Leaks in Indianapolis release methane equivalent to the electricity consumption of 42,000 households, in a state that still depends on coal for the majority of its power generation. Nathan Phillips, acting director of Boston University’s Sustainable Neighborhood Lab, pointed to Washington, DC, Baltimore, and Providence, Rhode Island as cities whose gas networks are “very leaky”.
And “with America’s disintegrating infrastructure, the problem is only getting worse,” Bloomberg states. “By comparison, areas where pipelines were recently replaced have up to 95% fewer leaks per mile.” A 2016 study by BU student Margaret Hendrick showed that “just 7% of leaks are responsible for 50% of the gas escaping from utilities’ pipes,” the news agency adds, meaning that “capping even a small portion of them could go a long way toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
The theme of under-reported methane emissions extends beyond oil and gas, as well, with a science writer from the U.S. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory reporting that methane emissions from coal mining are likely about 50% higher than past calculations. “The higher estimate is due mainly to two factors: methane that continues to be emitted from thousands of abandoned, mines and the higher methane content in coal seams that are ever deeper,” Tom Rickey reports for Phys.org.
The study “is one of the first to account for methane leaking from old, abandoned mines,” Rickey explains. “When a closed mine is flooded, water stops methane from leaking almost completely within about seven years. But when an abandoned mine is closed without flooding, as many are, methane leaks into the air for decades.”
The study led by Nazar Kholod, a scientist with the Joint Global Change Research Institute, looked at 250 coal samples from North America, South America, Australia, Asia and Europe. “The team found that coal from depths greater than 400 metres—depths many new mines reach—contains more than twice as much methane as coal mined at depths less than 200 metres,” Rickey writes, at a time when “mines are getting deeper every year.”
Kholod added that, “as more coal mines close, the share of coal mines that have been abandoned but are still emitting methane will increase.”
While scientists focus in on the climate impacts and unexpected prevalence of methane releases, a New York Times report last fall had one U.S. fossil executive fretting about the “huge, huge threat” his industry faces as a result of natural gas flaring—not on environmental grounds, but as a PR liability.
“What’s our message going forward?” asked Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, at a June, 2019 event convened by the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “What’s going to stick with those young people and make them support oil and gas?”
Last week, CBC unearthed a bit of confusion that plays in the fossils’ favour—while natural gas consists 70 to 90% of methane, a study by the Yale Program on Climate Communications found that people react very differently to the terms “natural gas,” “natural methane gas,” “methane”, and “methane gas”.
In response to methane, “the number one answer was cows, and cow farts,” said researcher and post-doctoral assistant Karine Lacroix. “That association with cows, it went even further, because quite a few people mentioned global warming when they heard about methane gas.”
But “overall, the survey found associations with natural gas were positive, and linked to cooking, heating, and notions of clean, eco-friendly energy,” CBC writes. “While survey respondents saw the link between the term methane and greenhouse gas emissions, it was largely missing for natural gas.”
“If we could correct that misperception, perhaps people would think twice about their energy choices,” Lacroix told the national broadcaster.