Explained: Fugitive methane emissions from natural gas production

  • 03 Jul 2014, 16:20
  • Mat Hope

CC: T Evanson

For half a decade, researchers have tried to answer the question of how much methane escapes from natural gas wells into the atmosphere. The recent emergence of fracking and shale gas has brought the issue to the fore. But studies continue to present varying results. 

Natural gas is mainly methane, some of which escapes during the drilling, extraction, and transportation process. Such outbreaks are known as fugitive emissions.

They're a problem because methane is a potent greenhouse gas - approximately  25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 100 year timescale. The issue has been thrown into sharp relief because gas production has undergone a boom in recent years.

The discovery of large amounts of gas locked in shale rock means the US's production has  increased by about 25 per cent in recent years. That's helped  push energy prices down and  reduce the US's emissions. Many other countries are now also keen to explore shale gas's potential, citing the US as an example.

Gas emits about half the carbon dioxide of coal when it's burned, leading some to tout it as a  relatively "clean" fuel. But if fugitive emissions are too high, it makes gas a less attractive fuel for policymakers and industries interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And so the question of just how big fugitive emissions are is a pressing one.

Contested evidence

The data is contested. Some people - often advocates of decarbonisation - suggest the fuel is  nowhere near as "clean" as some companies declare. Others - often industry voices - accuse campaigners of  cherry-picking evidence.

There's certainly a wide range of estimates on the extent of the problem.

Estimates of gas production leakage rates are expressed as a percentage of total production. When we looked at this question in 2012, they ranged from 0.6 to four per cent.  

Over the past two years, the upper end of this range has increased. Some studies now suggest the amount of gas leaking from wells could be as high as nine per cent.

We've put some of the key estimates in the chart below:

Fugitive Emissions Bar Chart

Source: Various, see  this Google Doc for details. Graph by Carbon Brief. Note: ^ means value is for unconventional - i.e. shale - gas wells only, * means the value in the graph is the mid-estimate or mean of a range where a 'best estimate' is not given.

So why is there such a range of results?

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Daily Briefing | ExxonMobil defies market and invests in oil refinery

  • 03 Jul 2014, 09:15
  • Carbon Brief staff

Credit: National Wildlife Federation

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Climate change 'not wholly to blame' for reef death in the Caribbean 
Overfishing and pollution are the main reasons the area of Caribbean coral reefs has halved since the 1970s according to Carl Gustaf Lundin, director of the global marine programme at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Times reports his comments that action to protect the reefs has been delayed because climate change was thought to be the biggest threat. 
The Times 

Climate and energy news

Nine States Join Climate Denier's Lawsuit Seeking To Dismantle EPA Carbon Rule 
West Virginia, Wyoming, South Carolina, Ohio, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alaska, Alabama, and Kentucky have joined a law suit contesting the US Environmental Protection Agency's right to impose climate regulations on the power sector. EPA rules that would regulate emissions from new power stations have already survived one round of legal attack but have yet to enter force. We took a look at the history of EPA climate rules last week, including how they have survived legal attacks so far and likely to be here to stay. 
Climate Progress 

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Overconfident predictions risk damaging trust in climate science, prominent scientists warn

  • 02 Jul 2014, 18:15
  • Roz Pidcock

There's a heated academic tussle going on over climate predictions. A high profile group of scientists has criticised the results of a paper published in Nature last year, which made some very precise forecasts for when different parts of the planet would feel the effects of climate change.

Last year's paper predicted to within a year or two when different regions would consistently see temperatures exceeding the bounds of natural variability. Writing in Nature today, the paper's critics say that's a level of confidence that can't be supported by our current understanding of climate science.

What may sound like a fairly technical dispute raises some tricky questions about the limits of science, and the way journals choose what to publish.

"Unprecedented" climate change

In October last year a Nature  paper got quite a bit of attention from the media with some bold statements about when different regions of the world can expect to enter the realms of "unprecedented" climate change. We covered it, here.

Reuters talked about a "shift to a new climate", while the  Daily Mail opted for the punchier ''Apocalypse Now: Unstoppable man-made climate change will become reality by the end of the decade'.

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A major strategic threat: how the Ministry of Defence sees climate change

  • 02 Jul 2014, 14:55
  • Simon Evans


The Ministry of Defence (MoD) Global Strategic Trends programme has issued an updated report on the threats and opportunities for world peace and security out to 2045.

Climate change is one of several megatrends considered by the report. And it's a big one - it will affect every region of the world through impacts like rising sea levels, drought and food shortages, the report finds.

But what are the most significant climate impacts expected by the MoD?


First of all it's worth noting that climate change features heavily in the MoD's analysis. Almost every section of its report, from transport to energy to health, makes reference to climate change impacts.

People often talk about ' mainstreaming' climate change into all aspects of policy-making or decision-taking. It looks like the MoD has taken this to heart.

Perhaps because its impacts are so all-encompassing, climate change is mentioned more frequently, with 151 references, than growth (98), water (141), health (85), energy (147) or migration (34). We've made a Wordle of 25 of the most frequently used words in the report, excluding common ones such as "likely".

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 At 12.02.59

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Record renewable energy consumption dampens impact of cold weather on UK’s annual emissions

  • 02 Jul 2014, 11:10
  • Mat Hope

CC: Slbs

The UK's energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions both rose in 2012, according to  new figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). The statistics show that record amounts of low carbon energy dampened the effect of increased consumption on emissions, but failed to cancel out the impact of a cold winter.


Households and businesses consumed 1.2 per cent more energy in 2012 than in 2011, bucking a general trend for declining consumption since 2005 (as the chart below shows). Temperatures one degree celsius lower than a year before were largely responsible for the increase, the ONS says.

ONS Energy Consumption

More fossil fuels were burned to meet the demand, the statistics show. The dashed blue line on the chart below shows the amount energy generated from fossil fuels such as coal and gas. Note how it pretty much mirrors the line on the chart above.

ONS Energy Consumption By Source

Burning coal and gas for power or heat releases lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

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Daily Briefing | $1 trillion of investment could be heading renewables' way

  • 02 Jul 2014, 09:15
  • Carbon Brief staff

CC2.0 Mohammed Saeed

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Bloomberg: Renewables to win two-thirds of new energy investment by 2030 
A major new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance published today suggests Europe is on course to halve greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 2030, by securing nearly $1 trillion of investments in renewable energy technologies. Falling costs for solar and onshore wind look set to make Europe subsidy-free during the 2020s, the report says. 

Climate and energy news

EU states avoid green energy overhaul after court backs Swedish scheme 
Sweden's renewable energy support scheme is compatible with European Union law, the European Court of Justice said on Tuesday, in a ruling that means member states will avoid a radical overhaul of their renewable energy laws. Renewable energy industry groups welcomed Tuesday's ruling and German economy minister Sigmar Gabriel called the decision "a clear signal on the continued support of renewable energy in Europe". The ruling will ease pressure on Germany to reach a compromise with the Commission over its energy subsidies, the piece suggests. 

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Government defends its climate science communication, but sets out a new strategy to improve it anyway

  • 01 Jul 2014, 13:40
  • Ros Donald

Is the government doing a good enough job of communicating climate science? In a response to a critical report by MPs on Parliament's Science and Technology Committee, the government has defended the way it communicates climate change, but it has also set out how it plans to improve. 

In April, the committee told the government it must  up its game in communicating the science of climate change. Its  report   'Communicating climate science', followed months of evidence sessions with experts and government and media representatives. Now the government has  responded to the committee's recommendations.

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Daily Briefing | Kiribati responds to climate threat by buying land

  • 01 Jul 2014, 09:15
  • Carbon Brief staff

CC: Julie Malick

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Beseiged by the rising tides of climate change, Kiribati buys land in Fiji 
The president of Kiribati, a group of low-lying islands in the Pacific ocean, has completed the purchase of twenty kilometres square of land in Fiji, around 2000 kilometres away. Low-lying states like Kiribati are threatened by rising sea levels. The land was bought from the Church of England. 
The Guardian 

Climate and energy news

Statoil delays key Arctic project 
In what the FT describes as "the latest Arctic setback for oil companies", Statoil has called results from exploratory drilling in the Barents Sea region "somewhat disappointing", and has pushed back a decision on how to proceed. 
Financial Times

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Scotland doesn’t have much shale gas, new estimates indicate

  • 30 Jun 2014, 14:31
  • Mat Hope

CC: J Macdonald

Scotland may have some hard to reach shale oil, but not much shale gas, according to new estimates.

A new  study by the British Geological Survey (BGS) released today suggests southern Scotland's Midland Valley may only have a fraction of the shale gas resources thought to be in northern England. The region between Glasgow and Edinburgh may have shale oil resources to rival those supposedly in England's south, however.

The report warns that it is "not yet possible" to ultimately know how much oil and gas Scotland's shale may produce.

How much is there?

BGS used mapping tools and data from existing oil and gas wells to predict the size of the resources. It gives three estimates of how much oil and gas there may be based on the model's results: low, central, and high.

BGS estimates there could be in the range of 49 to 135 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas locked in shale rock in Scotland's Midland Valley. It's central estimate is around 80 tcf - about six per cent of the resource thought to be in Lancashire's Bowland shale. The UK uses about three tcf of gas each year.

BGS Shale Gas Ranges

Source: Data from the British Geological Survey, graphs by Carbon Brief

While the survey finds there probably isn't much shale gas in Scotland, BGS estimates there could be as much as 11.2 billion barrels oil trapped in the same rock - about 30 per cent more than it recently estimated was in the  Weald Basin in the south of England.The UK uses 535 million barrels of oil each year. It has 3 billion barrels of oil that are currently known to be recoverable.

BGS Shale Oil Ranges

Source: Data from the British Geological Survey, graphs by Carbon Brief

BGS doesn't offer an estimate of how much oil or gas could eventually be extracted from the rock. Its estimates refer to the oil and gas "in-place" in the shale - the total amount that may be underground. That's  different from a 'reserve' estimate, which tells you how much you might eventually get out of the ground, and will be lower.

BGS emphasises that "some or all of [Midland Valley's oil and gas] might never be produced" in a press release accompanying today's report. That's partly because the region's geology could make it difficult for companies to drill exploratory wells. BGS says the Midland Valley shale rock has "thinner shale packages mixed in with volcanic rocks, faults and abandoned deep coal mine working which make it more complex and are likely to limit where wells can be drilled".

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Daily Briefing | Mayor says householders should own the oil and gas under their feet

  • 30 Jun 2014, 09:15
  • Carbon Brief staff

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Boris Johnson: Let households own shale gas and oil beneath their land 
British households should be given ownership of the oil and gas beneath their homes so that they have a commercial interest in supporting fracking, the mayor of London has said. Currently, the Government grants licences to companies to explore for and produce oil and gas, while the owners of the land beneath which it lies have no right to share in the proceeds.

Climate and energy news

NASA Launching Satellite to Track Carbon 
NASA is launching a new satellite to help scientists understand what is happening to 'lost' carbon dioxide emissions. At present, they can only account for around three quarters of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere. One quarter of the proportion that falls back down to earth 'disappears' into growing plants, but no-one knows yet exactly where or how. 
New York Times 

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