Natural Gas is Escaping into the Atmosphere from Drilling/Fracking Operations

by S. Tom Bond on August 2, 2019

Research on natural gas concentrations in Pennsylvania

A small number of leaky natural gas wells produce large emissions of greenhouse gases

From a Press Release of Princeton University, August 1, 2019

Wells that extract natural gas from underground often leak large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the air. A team of Princeton University researchers has found that, in one of the biggest gas-producing regions, most of these emissions come from a tiny subset of the wells, a finding with major implications for how to control the problem.

Researchers led by Mark Zondlo, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, spent two years sampling emissions from the Marcellus Shale, a basin that stretches from West Virginia into New York State. In research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the authors reported that 10% of wells account for more than three quarters of gas leaked into the atmosphere as a byproduct of extraction. That has the equivalent greenhouse gas effect of adding 500,000 cars, or about 2% of the U.S. auto market, to the road.

This finding, however, may have a silver lining for mitigating impacts on the environment, Zondlo said, because fixing a relatively small number of these “superemitting” wells could lead to a major reduction in emissions. He cautioned that identifying the leakiest wells is not always easy, in part because well emissions can change over time.

A researcher in a field beside a mobile lab — James McSpiritt, an optomechanical engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, adjusts an eddy covariance tower, a stationary device used to measure air pollution. The device allowed the researchers to collect data that they could compare to samples collected from the mobile laboratory.

The researchers said the emissions can result from a variety of practices, including the intentional opening of valves to relieve pressure at wells, or from valves that are unintentionally stuck open. Previous studies have looked at small samples of wells in Texas and West Virginia and reached similar conclusions about the impact of “superemitters.” The new research is the first to look at operations over the most productive shale basin in the U.S. and represents the largest total number of wells measured.

Along with Zondlo, who is former associate director for external partnerships at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, principal researchers on the team include Elie Bou-Zeid, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Jeffrey Fitts, former research scholar in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and former research and development strategist at the Andlinger Center. Dana Caulton, a former postdoctoral researcher in Zondlo’s lab, led the field sampling.

The lasers that Zondlo and the team use in the mobile laboratory, the Princeton Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment, measure the concentration of methane in the air by shooting a precise wavelength of light through the air and seeing how much light is absorbed by the gases in the air, specifically by methane. Using this technique, the researchers could discern the amount of methane in the air and calculate an emissions rate tied to the well.

The findings present a path toward eventually limiting carbon pollution from gas extraction, Zondlo said. A better understanding of why and how certain wells leak more than others can inform “practical pathways for mitigation,” he said.

Natural gas is composed of mostly methane, which is among the most potent greenhouse gases and about 30 times better able to trap heat than carbon dioxide, speeding global warming. Natural gas is an important part of the fuel mix in the United States, accounting for about 35% of electricity production and heating about 60 million American homes each year. Even in the most efficient operations, some leakage is expected. But Zondlo said the new findings show the possibility to vastly reduce the industry’s environmental impact.

Currently, gas companies typically look for leaks using infrared imaging cameras, which identify the leakage by “seeing” methane, but this technology is not sensitive enough to capture most leaks unless the camera is almost on top of the leak location itself. Infrared imaging cameras therefore are not great survey tools to screen a wide site, nor do they provide quantitative data on how much methane is released.

Despite the fact that superemitters may vary in time, depending on if the emissions are from a one-time stuck valve or an ongoing issue, such as a leaky flange, Zondlo said the methodology that the research group used could help capture the distribution of emissions over time.

Zondlo estimates using the lasers could increase monitoring costs at first, but he said that gas companies would recoup much of that by recovering lost product. If properly equipped, service vehicles that work on the wells could provide a route to effectively monitor emissions when coupled with common wind speed and direction forecasts, he said.

“If routine service vehicles were equipped with methane sensors, it could flag well pads where methane levels greatly exceeded past visits and identify the most problematic ones,” Zondlo said.

He said his technology and many other promising technologies exist, and now it is an issue to scale the technologies and implement them in the field. Most of the lasers used in his mobile laboratory are custom-made and expensive to build, but Zondlo said he is working on producing the lasers with more commonplace materials, such as LEDs.

Adam Brandt, associate professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University who is unaffiliated with the study, said the research “suggests that finding and fixing these small number of ‘superemitters’ could be a cost-effective way to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from gas production operations.”

David Lyon, a scientist at Environmental Defense Fund who has worked on previous methane emissions assessments, said “the results from this study reinforce the urgent need to reduce methane leaks from Pennsylvania’s existing unconventional gas wells — these leaks represent $70 million in wasted natural gas resources and have a short-term climate impact equivalent to that of nine coal-fired power plants.”

The next step for the researchers is to see what these superemitters have in common. Zondlo plans to study the characteristics of the wells, such as production rate, equipment age and size of the operator to see when and why sites become large emitters in hopes of informing mitigation strategies.

>>> Authors of the paper in addition to Mark Zondlo, Elie Bou-Zeid, Jeffrey Fitts and Dana Caulton include: Jessica M. Lu and Haley M. Lane, undergraduate students in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Levi M. Golston, Xuehui Guo and Da Pan, graduate students in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; James McSpiritt, optomechanical engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Bernhard Buchholz, German National Metrology Institute; Qi Li, Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering, Columbia University; and Lars Wendt of Hunterdon Central Regional High School. Support for the research was provided in part by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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Diana Gooding September 14, 2019 at 9:23 am

Fracked Gas Well Blowout in Louisiana Likely to Burn for the Next Month

By Julie Dermansky • DeSmog Blog, September 13, 2019

A fracked natural gas well in northwest Louisiana has been burning for two weeks after suffering a blowout. A state official said the fire will likely burn for the next month before the flames can be brought under control by drilling a relief well.

DeSmog obtained drone video footage shot 10 days* after the blowout, which occurred early in the morning on August 30, the day after the well was hydraulically fractured. A tower of flames reportedly shot into the air that could be seen from more than 30 miles away. While the flames are no longer as intense, the fire is still visible from a distance of more than a mile. GEP Haynesville, LLC, the well’s operator, told local ABC affiliate KPVI that the fire started during flow-back operations, but the exact cause has not been determined yet.

Experts have voiced concerns over the pollution being released, especially given the length of time this fossil fuel well has been leaking and burning.

“Blowouts are (unintended) large, uncontrolled pollutant sources with potentially significant health and environmental consequences,” Gunnar W. Schade, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University, told me via email after viewing the drone video obtained by DeSmog. “Blowouts need to be shut down as soon as possible.”

Sharon Wilson, Texas coordinator of environmental advocacy group Earthworks, outlined what happens during well blowouts like this.

“The gas is under pressure so if they lose control, the gas, frack fluid, produced water, and oil/condensate all blast out of the hole,” Wilson said during a call after viewing the video. “They have to get specialized teams to come shut the well in.”

Air Quality Impacts?

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) has determined that the blowout and fire present no major air quality concerns. “LDEQ responders consider this a very low-impact event,” Greg Langley, LDEQ spokesperson, said via email. “The well is clean, it’s gas and what is being released is being consumed in the fire.”

“LDEQ is receiving daily air monitoring results from the environmental response contractor hired by the well owner,” Langley explained. “The company set up four air monitors to test for sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds, and lower explosive limit. LDEQ also does periodic air monitoring with our own equipment. All meter readings have been below detection limits.”

Most of the air monitoring is being done with a chemical detector called MultiRAEs, according to Langley. When asked which volatile organic compounds, a class of air pollutants that includes the carcinogen benzene, were present, Langley replied, “Nothing was detected.”

“It’s laughable that they say there are no air impacts from this event,” Wilson said. She frequently monitors oil and gas industry sites with an optical gas imaging camera that detects leaking methane and other pollutants invisible to the naked eye. Wilson’s videos have been instrumental in identifying numerous leaking wells in various shale regions across the United States, including Louisiana’s Haynesville Shale, where this blowout is burning. Wilson reports her findings to state regulatory agencies, which on occasion have fined operators for the leaks she flagged.

“Even without my optical gas imaging camera, I know there are air impacts because I can see them with my naked eyes. You can see that the gas coming up is not all being burned off and the plume of smoke and gases is traveling a very far distance,” Wilson said, based on the drone footage.

Wilson recommends placing air sampling equipment on a drone to survey the area above the fire and leaking well.

“The problem is the plume is up much higher than an LDEQ inspector standing on the ground holding a MultiRae meter,” she said.

Wilma Subra, a technical advisor for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, agrees that using drone would be advisable and that air canister testing should be done too. This latter approach captures air samples over a period of days and measures how much of each compound is present. Subra thinks air canister testing is the best way to know if the emissions around the blowout are a threat to human health.

Louisiana’s Response and Oversight

The Louisiana State Police’s hazmat (hazardous materials) team and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (LDNR), which regulates oil and gas production, are also monitoring the blowout.

Like LDEQ, these two agencies concluded the accident did not warrant alerting nearby residents of potential health concerns. A few people live within a mile and a half of the site.

“Any time there is a loss of well control, there is a concern about environmental impacts,” Patrick Courreges, communications director for LDNR, told me. DNR’s “first concern is for the physical safety of the workers on site and for any people potentially affected in nearby homes and businesses,” but in this case the site is fairly remote and air monitoring, in place since the first day of the blowout, hasn’t indicated any potential immediate impacts of harmful gases, he explained.

“Currently, well control contractors are on site, under the supervision of the operator and State Police Incident Command to keep the impacts contained as much as possible, using water to help control the heat and potential spread of flame,” Courreges said. “While there is no good news in a blowout, the fire does actually help with lessening the impact of the escaping methane by burning much of it off, though obviously the goal is to get the flow of methane stopped and the fire out as soon as possible.”

“The longer-term solution is likely to be the drilling of wells to intercept the affected wellheads and stop the flow of gas in the damaged wellheads,” he told me. That might take a month. A design for a relief well has not been submitted yet to DNR, though one is being planned. Drilling a relief well was the same basic approach which ultimately stopped the flow of oil from BP’s Macondo well blowout deep under the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

“Full-on blowouts in hydraulically fractured Haynesville Shale wells are rare,” Courreges said. “While there have been instances of valves or piping giving way over the years that required emergency response, I don’t recall any blowouts on this scale from those type of wells.”

Wilson is skeptical of that response. “We don’t know how common this is because the industry tries very hard to keep these events quiet,” Wilson said. “If they happen in a remote area, no one finds out. They are always downplayed and the regulators help with the deception.” She believes that “there has never been a system in place to adequately regulate this industry, so they are allowed to self-regulate by doing their own testing.”

“For decades we have endured these oil and gas disastrous accidents that have harmed health and pushed us into a climate crisis,” Wilson said, “but we don’t have to put up with this anymore because the technology to transition to clean renewable energy is available today and it’s cheaper. The only thing holding us back is the political will.”

Natural Gas Blowouts

Methane, the main component in natural gas, is a greenhouse gas that is up to 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after entering the atmosphere. A study organized by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and published in June last year reports that the U.S. oil and gas supply chain is leaking roughly 60 percent more methane than previous Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates, which largely relied on industry self-reports.

Wilson compared this blowout to the 2015 Aliso Canyon catastrophe in southern California and the 2018 XTO blowout in Ohio, which both gushed large amounts of methane. “This blowout is a huge deal,” Wilson said. “We are at the climate breaking point and no one can even say how much methane is blasting into the air.”

Schade told me that estimating the amount of pollutants released from the “flare” (the industry term for intentionally burning natural gas in oil fields) is possible by looking at data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). This source will show data about the flare detected by satellite, allowing the atmospheric scientist to calculate the estimated amount of heat and emissions.

After reviewing the satellite data available so far, Schade reported the heat generated from this burning Louisiana well is at least three times the magnitude of the largest flares in the Permian oil fields of neighboring Texas. According to his estimates, this burning well may be releasing approximately 8,700 pounds of nitrogen oxides, pollutants that lead to smog and acid rain, each day.

“The emissions from such a source can be enormous,” said Schade.


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