01/23/2013 05:23 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

Natural Gas' Methane Leaks Damage Its Credibility

As the debate on the safety of natural gas production continues, Governor Cuomo's administration is in the midst of completing regulations that could lift the current ban on hydrofracking in New York and allow the natural gas industry to start developing facilities in the state. Industry officials have claimed that with new regulations, they effectively would not be able to drill the Marcellus Shale Formation in the New York area. While such stipulations could curb the degradation of our aquifers near natural gas facilities, it doe not excuse the industry from additional scrutiny. Although natural gas advocates claim the fuel will help solve our climate problems by emitting substantially less CO2 than coal, scientists have projected that, if left unchecked, methane emissions from natural gas could in fact contribute to the warming effect, due to methane being a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

Greenhouse gases are assigned individual Global Warming Potentials (GWPs), which compare the gases' warming effect with that of CO2 (which, by the definition of the term, has a GWP of "one"). By multiplying a mass of a particular gas by its GWP, you find the equivalent of the mass of CO2 emissions it would take to produce the same warming effect in a 100-year period. Methane, or CH4, is a greenhouse gas that has a multitude of sources, including fossil fuel production, livestock, biomass burning, and waste management. It is much more efficient at trapping radiation than CO2, and it has a GWP of 25, and in 2010, it accounted for 10% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, the second highest next to CO2.

Globally, roughly 60% of methane emissions into the atmosphere come from human activities. In 2006, the EPA estimated that 18% of these anthropogenic emissions came from the natural gas and petroleum industries. The U.S. accounts for 12 of that 18%. Researchers also estimated that domestic methane emissions would rise by as much as 8% from 2005 to 2020, due to the projected growth of the natural gas industry. While natural gas emits roughly half the CO2 as coal does, it is estimated to release substantial amounts of methane into the atmosphere and groundwater.

Methane leakages result in the oil industry in field operations, usually through venting and leakages in storage tanks. According to the EPA, the natural gas industry is rife with methane leakages. Primarily they occur during normal operations, such as drilling, processing, transmission, and distribution of shale gas. As the fuel is transported through normal procedures, emissions occur both through intentionally made vents and non-intentional leakages. Venting is a necessary procedure involving the "continuous bleed" of gas from devices that control gas flows, levels, temperatures, and the exertion of pressure on equipment. Unintentional leakage occurs in all parts of the infrastructure, from connections between pipes and vessels to valves and other equipment.

Advocates claim that natural gas can serve as replacement for coal since it emits, on average, half the amount CO2 as the latter. According to several researchers, these leakages could seriously damage natural gas' capacity to decrease our emissions. A study in 2011 by Tom Wigely of the Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that natural gas could not be a suitable replacement for coal unless methane leakage rates were kept below 2% in natural gas plants. An additional study by the Boston-based Environmental Defense Fund and Princeton University suggests that leakage rates of below 3.2% would also be acceptable. However, research groups have found that leakage rates have been far above these acceptable rates. In February 2012, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado issued a report, based on observations at a natural gas field in Denver, delineating that up to 4% of the accidental methane leakage was escaping into the atmosphere. This past December, at an American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco, the research team reported higher levels of methane leakage: according to results from a field study in the Uinta Basin Natural Gas facility in Utah, a staggering 9% of methane produced was leaking from the site.

Methane from natural gas production also leaks into our aquifers, as do other chemicals produced from hydrofracking. In May of 2011, researchers at Duke University found high levels of leaked methane in water from wells nearby shale-gas drilling and hydrofracking sites, after observing water samples from 68 private groundwater sites. From these 68 areas they found "measurable amounts" of methane in 85% of the samples, but they found samples from wells within a kilometer of hydrofracking sites to have roughly 17 times more methane than the other samples. Methane is flammable (and thus may have been the cause of the infamous sink scene from the 2010 documentary Gasland) and has a high risk of asphyxiation.

Just as the natural gas industry must mitigate the poisonous effect hydrofracking has on our aquifers, it must also ensure accidental methane emissions are kept to a minimum. Every natural gas facility should implement practices and machinery that will prevent accidental leakage. Only then could it serve to help steer our society away from coal and petroleum based energies.