Study finds low rate of methane leakage from fracked gas wells

Researchers found that methane emissions at a sample group of fracked gas wells were far lower than the EPA had predicted.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found a low level of methane leakage at a sample group of gas wells that had been hydraulically fractured.

In collaboration with the Environmental Defense Fund and nine drilling companies, researchers from the University of Texas measured methane emissions at 150 drilling sites containing a total of approximately 500 wells.

Based on the measurements taken during the study, researchers calculated that methane leakage may amount to as little as 0.42 percent of total natural gas production. This is considerably lower than the most recent estimate produced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Although some critics have taken issue with the industry's financial support for the project, a spokesperson for the University of Texas told the National Journal that "while the companies contributed money to the study, they had no input on the research or results, which were subject to independent peer review before being published."

The results of the UT study offer good news not to just to the industry, but to the Obama Administration, which has consistently promoted the use of natural gas as a way to lower emissions by reducing the country's dependency on burning coal and oil to generate power. The study's lead author, David Allen, told reporters that both the EPA and the White House have "expressed great interest in the findings."

Robert Howarth, a scientist who raised an early alarm about the threat posed by methane, told the AP that it is encouraging to see that the industry is capable of producing gas with such low emissions. However, he noted it will be challenging to make low-emission production the standard across the industry. In a post on his blog, Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate John Hanger took an optimistic tone on this issue.

"Simply put, if these shale gas wells can perform at this low level of leakage, then all shale gas wells that are hydraulically fractured should be able to do so," Hanger said.

Improving the industry's performance on the emissions issue will require a commitment to excellence in all aspects of operations, from drilling and completion to drill stem testing and production.