Why Science Matters, Part I: Methane Emissions Research

In this – or any other age – where argumentation is often based on belief systems, science presents an alternative. Science is a systematic way of pursuing knowledge via the scientific method.  It employs observation, prediction, and measurement, and it contrasts with belief systems.  The purpose of today’s blog is to examine how recently published science contributes to our knowledge of energy and climate change.  Science offers a foundation for improvement in business efficiency, profitability and the establishment of sound government policy.

In examining why science matters, we start with an examination of the recent scientific research associated with methane emissions from natural gas wells.  The research comes from the published work of David T. Allen et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and it has already received attention in some media because of its findings and their inconsistency with some people’s beliefs and earlier research.  The findings include lower than expected overall release of methane from newly drilled wells, many of which are associated with hydraulic fracturing.  Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, refers to the process of injecting water and chemicals into subterranean shale in order to release the natural gas stored within the pores of the shale.  Methane is the primary component of natural gas, and it is a potent greenhouse gas that is scientifically associated with climate change.

The study by Mr. Allen and his colleagues used measurements of emissions monitoring equipment during the completion process of wells during a seven month period that included the summer, fall, and parts of the winter and spring seasons of 2012 and 2013.  The method was direct measurement of methane emissions, an important contributor to the credibility of this research.  The results were almost 97% less than a 2011 estimate by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The study also examined 150 existing production sites and 489 wells with samples taken from them.  These wells use pneumatic controllers, which are designed to use air pressure created by the well to drive related equipment.  These devices can release methane as a part of their routine operation from equipment leaks that were detected using infrared cameras.  Mr. Allen’s and his colleagues’ observations were that methane release from pneumatic controllers was 57-67% higher than earlier EPA estimates.

While this scientific paper did not address business practices or policy, there is an opportunity to look to changes in practice that could further reduce methane release.  Pneumatic controllers were the primary source of methane release in this research and there are various actions that can be taken by natural gas companies, even without changes to policy that can help reduce the amount of methane release.  If companies were to install low-bleed devices in pneumatic controllers, retrofit machines with low-bleed devices, and improve maintenance associated with gaskets, tube fittings and seals we could see a significant reduction in the amount of methane being released by the pneumatic controllers.  Reducing the unintended loss of natural gas via pneumatic controllers has financial advantages for both the owner of the well and the environment. Owners of the wells can make more natural gas available for sale and the reduction of methane release in the environment can help mitigate any climate implications.

When taken together, methane emissions from new well installations and pneumatic controllers were 10% lower than earlier EPA estimates.  These findings are a valuable addition to our knowledge base.  Nine natural gas producers supported the research, and some media have indicted the credibility of the research because of the source of funding.  Since most scientific research is supported by one source or another, the particular source, per se, is less important than the soundness of the method used and the design of the hypotheses.  In both cases, Mr. Allen and his colleagues followed expected scientific practice that lends considerable credibility to the new information about lower than expected emissions of methane from natural gas extraction. This is the value of science.



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