In recent weeks, satellite measurements added even more evidence that methane emissions from natural gas production are likely a much larger problem than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the oil and gas industry acknowledges.

The first study found that the San Juan Basin has been a major source of U.S. methane emissions as far back as 2003, with coalbed methane and conventional natural gas operations largely to blame. The second study’s findings are even more alarming: Oil and gas operations in North Dakota and eastern Texas leaked roughly 10 percent of the natural gas they produced between 2006 and 2011, spewing methane—a potent greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere. That’s between 2 and 15 times higher than the EPA’s estimate for natural gas leakage during drilling and production in those years.

Methane Leakage from Natural Gas

Natural gas is often touted as a cleaner fuel because it emits approximately half the carbon dioxide as coal when used for power generation. However, methane—the main component of natural gas—escapes throughout various stages of the production chain. Methane is at least 34 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so methane leakage erodes the climate advantage natural gas has over coal. Natural gas can’t be part of any solution to climate change until and unless methane emissions are significantly curtailed.

Reducing Methane Leakage Is Possible and Cost-Effective

The results of the new measurement studies are distressing, but they are also frustrating – not just because natural gas comprises a growing share of U.S. energy, but because we know how to rein in methane emissions. EPA has already addressed a major source of production sector emissions, well completions (see below for more details), but we know that methane emissions are still too high.

Technological solutions, the majority of which are highly cost-effective, are available to address all major sources of methane emissions from natural gas production, processing, and distribution. It’s also in companies’ best interests to adopt these solutions, as they prevent lost product. Research shows that the natural gas industry could save $1.5 billion annually if all producers adopted these best practices.

And there is much that federal agencies can do to combat this problem, too. For example:

  • The Department of Energy can use its role as the research and development arm of the federal government to improve the effectiveness and reduce the costs of emissions measurement and control technologies, such as methane isotope analyzers, infrared cameras, and portable compressors.

  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the network of interstate natural gas pipelines, can work with companies to incentivize investments that will reduce methane leakage.

  • Most importantly, EPA can set standards for methane emissions under the Clean Air Act. In 2012, EPA finalized standards to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from well completions and several smaller sources, which have the co-benefit of reducing methane emissions. And the agency is currently considering whether to propose new standards for methane emissions from four other major sources. But even with ambitious new rules addressing emissions from all of those sources, there’s still significant work to do to reduce methane emissions from the natural gas sector.

Following the Leaders

In the meantime, states are leading the way. Colorado and Wyoming, for example, had policies in place for many years that later served as the model for EPA’s 2012 air quality standards. And just this year, Colorado cemented its reputation as a leader in addressing emissions from natural gas systems when it became the first state to target methane directly, issuing rules that will reduce methane emissions by 95 percent from several major sources.

Other states can do their part by following Colorado’s lead and mitigating methane leakage. New work underway at WRI will help states accomplish this by examining available technologies and best practices to reduce methane emissions, as well as proposing key requirements that should be part of any new laws or standards. Keep your eyes on this space for more information in the coming weeks.

LEARN MORE: Download our paper, Clearing the Air: Reducing Upstream Greenhouse Gas Emissions from U.S. Natural Gas Systems.