The argument for burning gas instead of coal goes something like this: burning gas is “cleaner” because it emits less carbon dioxide than oil or coal – even though methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas.
So if you can keep the gas you drill from escaping before it is burned as fuel, you might have an advantage. The problem is that gas escapes – from wells, pipelines, compressors. A couple years ago the federal Environmental Protection Agency had estimated that 0.8 percent to 1.6 percent of natural gas production escapes, on a national average.
Then last year the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) published a paper finding that as long as escaping methane was less than 3.2 percent of lifetime production, natural gas would be better than coal for electrical production. According to EDF, 3.2 percent is the “threshold”; methane emissions above that level would eliminate the justification for using gas as a “transition fuel” to replace coal for electricity generation.
Now, new research shows that more – much more – methane is escaping from gas production than thought. Studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Utah’s Uintah Basin showed that up to 12 percent of the gas produced could be going into the atmosphere instead of the pipeline. The basin serves about 6,000 wells and accounts for about one percent of the nation’s gas production.
A research team from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) flew over the basin at about 1,000 feet, gathering air samples and taking readings over a period of several weeks. They used a “mass balance” technique which follows an air mass at it moves into a region and then flows out of that area. During their Feb. 3 testing they found that the area leaked 60 tons of gas an hour. Some days it was far greater.
It’s not just the wells that are leaking; methane could potentially be leaking from processing plants, pipelines, and compressors. The problem with all this leaky methane is that it contributes to smog – and Utah has smog levels that rival Los Angeles on its worst days. An EPA report concluded that the oil and gas industry was responsible for about 99 percent of the volatile organic compounds found in the basin which, when mixed with sunlight, creates ground level ozone. The smog was so bad at times that the Salt Lake City airport has had to divert flights.
Add up the studies and you get a picture that shows drilling pollutes the air people breathe, creates smog, and adds a higher-than-predicted burden of greenhouse gases to our atmosphere. Now US Fish and Wildlife Service say drilling is contributing to the loss of two plant species. The agency is asking for federal protection for two rare plant species, Graham’s beardtongue and White River beardtongue and is asking for them to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
According to US Fish & Wildlife, both plants are endemic to the Uintah Basin and over the past few years their range has been reduced by oil and gas development, invasive species and grazing. The plants grow where oil shale deposits that are rich in calcium carbonate touch the surface.