UT Study Sheds Light on Methane Emissions in Fracking

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The hydraulic fracturing boom has boosted the U.S. economy and created thousands of jobs. But the perennially controversial technique for drilling natural gas is also the bane of environmentalists, who are alarmed by health and pollution risks. Now a UT study has new details on where and when harmful methane leaks occur during gas production.

Published Dec. 9 in Environmental Science & Technology, the study measured methane leaks at natural gas production sites across the country. Methane leaks are problematic because they contribute to climate change, and researchers want to figure out how and when they occur and minimize them. This study’s key finding: A small percentage of drill sites accounts for the majority of leaks. According to a UT release, 19 percent of pneumatic devices accounted for 95 percent of that type of emission, while 20 percent of wells with unloading emissions accounted for 65-83 percent of those emissions.

Principal investigator and chemical engineering professor David Allen likened these a-few-bad-apples results to auto pollution. “Over the past several decades, 10 percent of the cars on the road have been responsible for the majority of automotive exhaust pollution,” Allen said in a statement. “Similarly, a small group of sources within these two categories are responsible for the vast majority of pneumatic and unloading emissions at natural gas production sites.”

The new results are the second phase of a collaboration between the university, the Environmental Defense Fund, oil and gas companies, and an independent panel. In 2013, the research team published part one of the study, which found that while the total amount of methane emissions was in line with Environmental Protection Agency estimates, the location of the leaks was different than previously thought.

A few environmental groups have criticized the fact that the UT study is partially funded by the energy industry. Of course, many energy studies accept industry funding—a fact that the university has been careful to disclose after a 2012 conflict-of-interest scandal made national headlines. The researchers also point to the inclusion of an independent scientific advisory panel and the Environmental Defense Fund. “It’s not every day you’re able to bring together this level of collaboration between an environmental group, an academic institution like UT, and these energy companies,” EDF manager of special projects Drew Nelson told the Alcalde in 2013.

Photo: Measurement of liquid unloading at a natural gas production site. Courtesy the Cockrell School of Engineering.



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