Methane Leaks May be Far Worse than Official Estimates, Altering Climate Change Predictions

Thursday, August 06, 2015
Natural gas, a source of methane, is flared off at oil drilling site (photo: Eric Gay, AP)

More methane may be leaking into the atmosphere than has been previously estimated by scientists, which could have huge ramifications for global warming.


The concern stems from the Bacharach Hi Flow Sampler, a device used around the world to monitor natural gas facilities and their gas leaks. The device relies on two sensors that are supposed to measure the amount of methane that escapes from gas infrastructure. However, researchers at the University of Texas found that one of sensors sometimes fails to do its job, causing the device to undercount the methane leak at a given location.


As The New York Times noted, “if the supposed flaws are borne out, the finding could also have implications for all segments of the natural gas supply chain, with ripple effects on predictions of the rate of climate change, and for efforts and policies meant to combat it.”


Touché Howard, a semiretired gas industry consultant who holds the patent for a high-flow-rate sampler whose technology is used in the Bacharach meter, said in a study on the UT investigation that when the device malfunctions, “there is no way to determine the magnitude” of the error without independent measurement at the time, so the missed emissions could be extremely high — perhaps tenfold to a hundredfold for a particularly large leak, he said, according to the Times.


Methane is a particularly dangerous greenhouse gas, with by some estimates 80 times the heating effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Methane Leaks May Greatly Exceed Estimates, Report Says (by John Schwartz, New York Times)

University of Texas Study Underestimates Methane Emissions at Natural Gas Production Sites Due to Instrument Sensor Failure (by Touché Howard, Energy Science & Engineering) (abstract)

Natural Gas Production Blamed for Methane Plume the Size of Delaware (by Danny Biederman and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

U.S. Methane Emissions May be 50% Higher than EPA Estimates (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)


anonamouse 8 years ago
The implications of this discovery are staggering. Because if it's true that there's much more methane being emitted than the models predicate, it can only mean that: either the extra methane is having no effect on climate (i.e., it's being sequestered or otherwise compensated for by some undiscovered Earth process), or the models are too aggressive in their warming predictions. More fuel on the fire means the fire should be burning brighter, yet, the satellite temperature record shows just the opposite --- the fire burns no hotter now than it did in 1998. This suggests that when the models are adjusted to reflect the new input (more fuel available to the fire than previously thought), the models should start predicting a future that's both cooler and less volatile. Good news for those of us who don't secretly yearn for a Malthusian extinction event and a global government to "mitigate" the putative catastrophe.

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