Gas Leaks – And It’s Worse Than We Thought, and half the increase in methane emissions is from increased fracking this past decade

We know the increase is largely due to fossil fuel production and this research suggests over half is from shale gas operations,

December 16, 2020 Sheryl Carter

There is no question that gas extraction, production and use is a significant contributor to our climate crisis, but just how bad it is depends a lot on how much the gas system leaks. This is because it emits methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas – contributing more than 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. The Gas Index, just released by Climate Nexus and developed by Global Energy Monitor, uses the newest methane science to estimate leakage from the wellhead to the home, and presents lifecycle leakage rates for 71 cities across the United States—showing rates far higher than the government’s estimates.    <image005.png>

The gas problem

The production, transportation, and combustion of fossil (aka “natural) gas poses a myriad of problems for clean airclean water, wildlife, landscapes and ecosystems, human health, local communities, and our climate. Leaking gas infrastructure is a source of unaddressed climate and other harmful air pollution and can create emissions hotspots, significant public human health impacts, and environmental justice issues because it is often located in, or cuts across, disadvantaged areas.

Unfortunately, gas use is growing–primarily due to power plants using more of it and continued construction of new buildings heated with gas. Gas was the only fuel source to see increased carbon pollution in 2019 (while economy-wide emissions fell 3 percent). When it is burned, gas typically emits half the carbon of coal, so one might conclude that gas can help us reduce emissions (and many have). But there are problems with that reasoning. First, with efficiency and renewable energy far cheaper and more abundant than coal, the choice is no longer between coal and gas. Likewise, there are much more efficient and cleaner electric appliance and equipment alternatives to direct use of gas in buildings (for example, electric heat pump water heaters are up to 5 times more efficient than conventional gas water heaters), which are a key part of the long term solution to equitable building “decarbonization” for all households. Second, that comparison of gas to coal does not count the methane leaked all along the gas supply chain. And as the new analysis by Global Energy Monitor shows, that amount is much higher than we thought.

Inside the new Gas Index

The analysis found that all 71 cities evaluated had lifecycle methane emission rates higher than estimated in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) Inventory – some more than four times higher. Global Energy Monitor relied on newer and more comprehensive studies across the gas system in its analysis. For example, the analysts included measurements from oil and gas production areas responsible for 90 percent of production versus only one-third from older studies that showed slightly higher leakage rates than EPA estimates.

Even more notably, new measurements of leakage within cities found much higher rates than EPA estimates from local gas distribution pipelines (nearly 5 times as much); leaks from customers’ gas meters (up to 6 times higher); and from behind the meter leakage (from pipes and appliances like tankless gas water heaters within buildings), which EPA’s GHG Inventory doesn’t even include. Other researchers’ measurements of citywide emissions from gas, using flights overhead and measurements from towers located in and around the cities, show there is also leakage even greater than the sum of the individual supply components (see graphic above) estimated by Global Energy Monitor. Its analysis was careful to weed out emissions from non-fossil gas sources like landfills, but these “additional,” or unaccounted for emissions could be from gas distribution pipelines, customer gas meters, and/or behind-the meter leakage – we just don’t know.<image006.png>

What this means for cities and states

Eliminating emissions in America’s buildings is a crucial component to meeting our carbon reduction goals, given that they are responsible for 40 percent of our carbon emissions – and up to 75 percent of a city’s emissions. It is also fundamental to making cities more healthy, equitable, and affordable places to live.

The Index presents the most up to date and best available estimates of the leakage rate of each of the 71 cities’ gas supply. This is critical new information for the many cities that have established, or are considering, aggressive carbon reduction strategies. Meeting these commitments will require massive amounts of increased energy efficiency for all homes, electrifying buildings, and ensuring the energy to power, heat, and cool buildings comes from renewable, zero-carbon energy sources. The Gas Index could make the carbon math even more favorable than it already is for equitably transitioning households from gas appliances and equipment burning gas on site to highly efficient electric appliances.

The largest use of gas in U.S. buildings is for space heating. Studies by Rocky Mountain Institute and Sierra Club already show that switching from gas to electric heating would cut emissions in all 50 states. This new study further increases the climate benefits of transitioning away from gas in buildings. And this doesn’t even account for the economic, public health, and other environmental impacts to customers and cities as gas infrastructure investments become stranded. The move away from gas must begin with prioritizing Black, brown, and Indigenous communities, and low-income households, who are most at risk from an unmanaged transition. Decision-makers should review this report carefully as they consider new proposals by gas distribution utilities to invest billions in pipe replacement, or in building out new pieces of the gas distribution system. 

recent report noted that while global carbon emissions will be down 7 percent this year due to the pandemic, we still need to cut climate pollution more than 7 percent per year through 2030 to even hope to stay below a 1.5 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures. Our new federal administration must reverse the rollbacks of protections intended to curb methane emissions, and mandate that leaks from oil and gas wells, pipelines, and other facilities be located and stopped. But it is our American cities that can and must lead in the transition away from our dependence on gas to improve the health and equity for their residents and combat this climate crisis. The fact that so many cities already get it, gives me great hope.


PAT REMICK Senior Energy Communications Strategist
T: 202-289-2411M:202.696.6272


Robert W. Howarth. Ideas and perspectives: is shale gas a major driver of recent increase in global atmospheric methane? Biogeosciences, 2019 DOI: 10.5194/bg-16-3033-2019

Fracking prompts global spike in atmospheric methane, study suggests: About two-thirds of all new gas production over the last decade has been shale gas produced in the United States and Canada

August 14, 2019, Source: European Geosciences Union

Summary: As methane concentrations increase in the Earth’s atmosphere, chemical fingerprints point to a probable source: shale oil and gas, according to new research

As methane concentrations increase in the Earth’s atmosphere, chemical fingerprints point to a probable source: shale oil and gas, according to new Cornell University research published today (14 August) in Biogeosciences, a journal of the European Geosciences Union.

The research suggests that this methane has less carbon-13 relative to carbon-12 (denoting the weight of the carbon atom at the center of the methane molecule) than does methane from conventional natural gas and other fossil fuels such as coal.

This carbon-13 signature means that since the use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing — commonly called fracking — shale gas has increased in its share of global natural gas production and has released more methane into the atmosphere, according to the paper’s author, Robert Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell University in the US.

About two-thirds of all new gas production over the last decade has been shale gas produced in the United States and Canada, he said.

While atmospheric methane concentrations have been rising since 2008, the carbon composition of the methane has also changed. Methane from biological sources such as cows and wetlands have a low carbon-13 content — compared to methane from most fossil fuels. Previous studies erroneously concluded that biological sources are the cause of the rising methane, Howarth said.

Carbon dioxide and methane are critical greenhouse gases, but they behave quite differently in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide emitted today will influence the climate for centuries to come, as the climate responds slowly to decreasing amounts of the gas.

Unlike its slow response to carbon dioxide, the atmosphere responds quickly to changes in methane emissions. “Reducing methane now can provide an instant way to slow global warming and meet the United Nations’ target of keeping the planet well below a 2-degree Celsius average rise,” Howarth said, referring to the 2015 Paris Agreement that boosts the global response to climate change threats.

Atmospheric methane levels had previously risen during the last two decades of the 20th century but levelled in the first decade of 21st century. Then, atmospheric methane levels increased dramatically from 2008-14, from about 570 teragrams (570 million tons) annually to about 595 teragrams, due to global human-caused methane emissions in the last 11 years.

This recent increase in methane is massive,” Howarth said. “It’s globally significant. It’s contributed to some of the increase in global warming we’ve seen and shale gas is a major player.”

“If we can stop pouring methane into the atmosphere, it will dissipate,” he said. “It goes away pretty quickly, compared to carbon dioxide. It’s the low-hanging fruit to slow global warming.”

Materials provided by European Geosciences Union

Robert W. Howarth. Ideas and perspectives: is shale gas a major driver of recent increase in global atmospheric methane? Biogeosciences, 2019 DOI: 10.5194/bg-16-3033-2019

European Geosciences Union. “Fracking prompts global spike in atmospheric methane, study suggests.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 August 2019. <>.



Fracking boom tied to methane spike in Earth’s atmosphere

The chemical signature of methane released from fracking is found in the atmosphere

By Stephen Leahy, Aug 15, 2019

Scientists have measured big increases in the amount of methane, the powerful global warming gas, entering the atmosphere over the last decade. New research points to methane emissions from fossil fuel production—mainly from shale gas operations in the United States and Canada—as the culprit. The “massive” increase in methane emissions occurred at the same time as the use of fracking for shale gas took off in the U.S., says Robert Howarth, an ecologist at Cornell University and author of the study published Aug 14 in the journal Biogeosciences.

“We know the increase is largely due to fossil fuel production and this research suggests over half is from shale gas operations,” Howarth says in an interview.

This big methane increase matters because methane heats up the climate over 80 times more than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the first 20 years after it is released into the atmosphere, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. After 20 years most of the methane becomes CO2, which can last for hundreds of years.

Methane released from shale gas production has a slightly different chemical fingerprint compared to methane from cow burps (not farts as commonly believed) and wetlands. Previous studies show that shale gas generally has less carbon-13 relative to carbon-12 (denoting the weight of the carbon atom at the center of the methane molecule) than does methane from conventional natural gas and other fossil fuels such as coal, Howarth said.

The study took previous data on the chemical composition of methane in the atmosphere and applied a series of equations to parse out how much of this lighter form of methane could be attributed to shale gas. That lighter form of methane released during fracking is a substantial component of the overall methane rise since 2008.TODAY’SPOPULAR STORIESSCIENCECORONAVIRUS COVERAGEFDA confirms Moderna’s vaccine is 94.1-percent effective; emergency approval expected this weekANIMALSMeet Phelan the rescue pup—now America’s fastest dogSCIENCEWho is really ‘first in line’ for the vaccine? It depends on your state.

However, he acknowledges that the chemical fingerprint of shale gas can vary depending on the locale and how the chemical analysis is done. While the study isn’t a “smoking gun,” it has found a link between recent increases in methane in the atmosphere and shale gas production.

“It’s fuzzy, but the fingerprint is there,” Howarth says.

Signs point to fracking

Natural gas is mainly methane. Fracking involves drilling an oil or gas well vertically and then horizontally into a shale formation. A mixture of highly pressurized water, chemicals, and sand is injected to create and prop open fissures, or pathways for the gas to flow. Nearly all of the world’s fracking operations are in the U.S. and Canada. About two-thirds of all new gas production globally over the last decade has been shale gas produced in the U.S. and Canada using fracking, Howarth’s study found.

The amount of methane added to the atmosphere in the past decade also corresponds to studies that show fracking operations leak, vent, or flare between 2 and 6 percent of the gas produced, Howarth said.CLIMATE 101: CAUSES AND EFFECTSThe climate is certainly changing. But what is causing this change? And how does the rising temperature affect the environment, and our lives?

A 2015 study estimated that North Texas’ Barnett Shale region leaked 544,000 tons of methane a year using a conservative leakage rate of 1.5 percent. That’s equivalent to 46 million tons of CO2, more than some states such as Nevada or Connecticut.

A 2015 study led by John Worden of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory found that methane levels were unchanged for years, but increased sharply after 2006, growing by 25 million tons a year. Using satellites and other measures they concluded that fossil fuels were responsible for between 12 and 19 million tons of this additional methane and the rest was likely biological sources.

The Howarth study adds another piece to the extremely complicated methane puzzle, Worden said in an email, declining to elaborate.

It’s unlikely that the sharp rise in global methane levels at the same time as shale oil and gas operations increased dramatically is just coincidence, said Anthony Ingraffea, a Professor of Engineering at Cornell University and a colleague of Howarth’s. The paper suggests shale gas’s chemical fingerprint offers evidence of a direct link, said Ingraffea, who reviewed an early version of the paper.

“Isotopic analysis of gas samples at wellheads across a number of fracking operations could easily prove or disprove Howarth’s hypothesis,” he says. “If Howarth is right then we know shale gas operations are making global warming worse, and upending efforts to stay well below 2C.”

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, every country in the world agreed to keep global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), while low-lying island states and others lobbied for 1.5 Celsius.

Although often forgotten in climate discussions, methane increases have added to the current warming and will continue to do so without action to cap them.

“The atmosphere responds quickly to changes in methane emissions. Reducing methane now can provide an instant way to slow global warming,” Ingraffea says.

Ingraffea’s own research has found that a small percentage of wells are responsible for the bulk of methane emissions either through leaks or deliberate venting. Retrofits and capturing the gas instead of venting could dramatically reduce emissions but would add to costs.

Environment and health

The Trump administration is trying to ramp up shale production by reversing rules for fracking operations on public lands. Those rules required companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking, as well as more stringent standards on the construction of fracking wells and wastewater management. In addition, the Trump administration is auctioning off millions of acres of drilling rights to oil and gas developers.

Environmental and health concerns have led France and Germany to ban fracking. New York State, Maryland, and Vermont also have bans. A 2018 study in Pennsylvania found that children born within a mile or two of a fracked well were likely to be smaller and less healthy.

In Arkansas researchers found water levels in 51 percent of its streams dangerously depleted due to water withdrawals for fracking operations. Fracking and the deep-well injection of its waste waters have been widely linked to earthquakes.SHARETWEETEMAILCOPY

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** will play a critical role in changing course.  Early moving states act for different reasons. (In Colorado it will be because of the physical leaks and risks Sen. Tammy Story and a CNG Safety Director/whistleblower have working on). In New York, a prolonged battle over National Grid’s proposed gas pipeline into Brooklyn and Queens prompted regulators to change the way utilities plan new gas investments. California officials were moved to act in the wake of the massive Aliso Canyon gas leak that was discovered in 2015, along with increasing urgency to address climate change.  Now, regulators are envisioning a future with a dramatically reduced role for gas and are planning to manage that transition safely and equitably. The 2018 Merrimack Valley gas explosions forced this conversation to the forefront in Massachusetts; at the urging of the attorney general’s office, gas utilities will develop a plan to transition their business.  The current system, predicated on burning gas in perpetuity, no longer meets the needs of society. Gas use must decline dramatically in the coming years in order to limit global warming to just 1.5° C. Regulators will have to create a new system that expands carbon-free electricity and electrification of transportation and vehicles as quickly as possible.