Texas oil and gas company Triple Crown discovered it was leaking 20 times more methane than the Environmental Protection Agency estimated after it began a rigorous leak detection program. Source: Triple Crown
Green | Energy & Science

As Gas Prices Soar, Nobody Knows How Much Methane Is Leaking

No one knows how long natural gas had been seeping out of a meter at the Greenville Downtown Airport in South Carolina. A satellite chartered by Duke Energy Corp., the power company for the airport, eventually spotted the billowing greenhouse gas, and workers came to fix the leak.

But in the intervening time between leak and discovery, an untold amount of methane—the main component of natural gas—escaped into the atmosphere. For the next two decades, all that gas will trap 84 times more heat than a similar amount of carbon dioxide.

Duke says it’s the first U.S. utility to use satellites to search their own infrastructure for invisible leaks, both to save fuel that’s rarely commanded today’s skyrocketing prices and to help stem global warming. The company’s blindness to a dangerous methane plume from its own infrastructure surprised executives. And it underscores an even more concerning fact about the global energy industry: those involved in extracting, moving and burning oil and gas aren’t required to know anything about the actual volume of planet-warming pollution being released into the air.

A Piedmont Natural Gas technician uses a combustible gas indicator on a meter set at a commercial building in Greenville, South Carolina in December 2021. 
A technician for a Duke Energy subsidiary uses a combustible gas indicator on a meter set at a commercial building in South Carolina. Source: Duke Energy

Lost gas from gaping leaks in pipelines and storage tanks isn’t just a climate catastrophe—it’s now an acute economic setback as well. Fallout from the two-month-old Russian invasion of Ukraine has intensified a worldwide energy crunch and set off a scramble to secure new supplies of natural gas. U.S. natural gas futures have been holding near a 13-year high after hitting $8 in April, just as Russia halted gas flows to Poland and Bulgaria last week in an escalating use of energy as a geopolitical weapon.

But the rush to build new gas infrastructure is being undertaken without accurate measurements on how much gas is being wasted from existing pipelines and tanks. Estimates of the losses are based on emissions projections that prove to be disconnected from reality, which means the warming impact is also severely undercounted.

While almost 8,000 power plants, oil and gas companies and refineries in the U.S. report their emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency each year, experts say those figures drastically underestimate the contribution to rising temperatures from the industry. Even with new methane-detecting technologies available, companies aren’t obligated to physically monitor infrastructure, and federal regulators rarely collect data of their own. Disclosure comes down to companies simply tallying figures—for example, how many gas wells they have—and applying an outdated formula developed by the EPA that assigns an assumed emissions rate.

David Lyon, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit group, estimates that the approach undercounts U.S. methane emissions by about 50%. Duke, for its part, acknowledges it doesn’t have data that would dispute such an assessment.

“We don’t know yet the delta between what we report to the EPA and what we think it is,” says Sasha Weintraub, head of Duke's natural gas business. The company just expanded the satellite program to Charlotte, North Carolina. “Hopefully,” adds Weintraub, “that’ll give us a flavor of what our actual emissions are."

Accurately tracking those emissions, and figuring out how to stop them, is one of the most urgent tasks needed to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Methane’s potent heat-trapping power, and the fact that it degrades more rapidly than carbon dioxide, makes curbing it one of the quickest ways to cool the planet.

The issue has risen to the top of the global climate agenda, with the U.S. seeking to position itself as a leader in counteracting methane leaks. At the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow last year, U.S. diplomats along with their European counterparts got more than 100 countries to pledge to cut methane emissions 30% by the end of the decade. At home, meanwhile, the EPA proposed new rules to cut leaks by the oil and gas industry. They include a requirement to scan well sites with specialized infrared cameras every quarter and undertake “prompt repair” of leaks.

But U.S. regulators are working under a flawed set of assumptions. Energy companies calculate emissions to regulators using equations for infrastructure in a well-maintained condition, says Drew Shindell, a professor at Duke University who studies methane and has contributed to the United Nation’s authoritative reports on climate change. Yet ruptures are showing up in pipelines and compressor stations all over the country. “We don’t really know how much methane is coming out of fossil fuel systems, Shindell says, “because they leak.”

Seen from an airplane window, Kairos Aerospace’s airplane-mounted sensor and camera technology uses a methane spectrometer to precisely map emissions and identify the sources.
Kairos Aerospace’s airplane-mounted sensor and camera technology uses a methane spectrometer to precisely map emissions and identify the sources. Source: Kairos Aerospace

Even leak-conscious energy companies can be surprised when they survey their operations for the first time.

Triple Crown Resources is an oil and gas driller with operations in the Permian Basin in Texas that’s invested heavily to make sure it can store natural gas properly. So when Triple Crown hired Kairos Aerospace to fly small planes over its system with infrared methane-detecting cameras in late 2020, it expected the leak rate to be pretty close to what it calculated using the EPA equation: about 0.2% of the total gas.

Ryan Keys, the co-founder and president, recalls the day his team first saw the results of the flyover. The group had gathered for its weekly operations meeting, with some people sitting in a room at its Dallas office while others watched via Zoom from the field. “It was a shock,” says Keys. “We found we were leaking over 4%. We were leaking 20 times more than what the EPA said we were leaking, and we’re not special.”

Investment and careful maintenance hadn’t kept Triple Crown’s system from leaking huge amounts of gas. The company sent workers to fix the leaks and installed sensors to continuously monitor for methane. Keys estimated that last year his company saved about $1.8 million by preventing 400 million cubic feet of gas from escaping.

A Triple Crown tank battery shown leaking methane.
A repaired Triple Crown tank battery that was previously leaking methane.
A Triple Crown tank battery shown leaking methane (left) before a repair stopped the leak (right). Source: Triple Crown

Triple Crown has since conducted six more flyover inspections, dropping its leak rate down to the 0.2% figure it originally reported to the EPA. But Keys isn’t reassured. The method of calculating emissions preferred by the U.S. regulator is “perverse,” he says, because it creates a false sense of security among oilfield operators.

“The EPA says I’m good, so I’m not going to do s—t,” Keys says, summarizing the views of other Permian Basin operators.

Enesta Jones, a spokeswoman for the EPA, says the agency is considering changes to its greenhouse gas reporting program that would improve the quality and consistency of data. But she also defended the current rules, saying all calculations and monitoring have gone through public consultation processes that included environmental groups.

Former EPA employees acknowledge the system is deeply flawed. The federal government shouldn’t rely on companies to report emissions now that independent monitoring is possible, says Judith Enck, a regional administrator for the EPA under President Obama. A more realistic equation would also help, she says. The EPA “has to factor in real-life conditions.”

The agency estimates that 1.4% of all natural gas produced in the U.S. is leaked into the air, according to a recent Stanford University study in which researchers strapped specialized cameras to small planes. The flights peeked down onto about 26,000 oil and gas wells and found the figure was likely much higher at 9%.

Bottom-up calculations like those used by the EPA lead to a “substantial undercount” of methane emissions, says Alexandra Tietz, a former EPA employee who later worked in Obama’s Interior Department. Companies should be doing more frequent and sensitive leak detection, for example by using a combination of handheld infrared cameras on the ground and flyovers like the one Triple Crown conducted.

“Companies can’t control emissions they don’t know are happening,” Tietz says.

Accumulated methane leaks by volume across the continental U.S. identified by geoanalytics firm Kayrros SAS from Jan. 2019 to April 2022. Source: Kayrros SAS

Growing awareness of the enormous scope of lost gas hasn’t eliminated the underlying mystery behind exactly which companies are responsible for some of the biggest plumes.

In January, for example, a satellite operated by the European Space Agency spotted a massive methane release over multiple gas pipelines and active oil and gas wells in Louisiana. Releases can be far larger—and done deliberately to facilitate repairs or upgrades—rather than the smaller, accidental leaks that plague the industry. The methane cloud spotted over Louisiana had the same climate impact as the annual emissions from almost 2,000 cars, according to geoanalytics company Kayrros SAS. The state launched an investigation after an inquiry from Bloomberg News, but the source was never found. No companies stepped up to take responsibility.

It’s a story repeated all over the globe. Big leaks and releases in Russia, Kazakhstan and Iran increased those countries’ methane emissions by as much as 20% compared with official national figures reported to the United Nations, according to a study by an international team of researchers published in the journal Science earlier this year. Super leaks in Turkmenistan, the central Asian oil-rich nation controlled by a secretive dictator, have doubled its annual carbon output.

When researchers in Canada measured methane emissions at about 7,000 sites across the country’s oil and gas infrastructure, they found that the industry underestimated actual emissions by a factor of 1.5. This kind of chronic undercounting calls into question the very idea that natural gas is a cleaner alternative to coal. Gas leakage of more than about 3% makes the fuel worse for the climate than coal, according to a study published by the National Academy of Sciences.

“Methane emissions tend to be higher from natural gas than from coal,” says Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University. “It does not take huge methane emissions to make up for the lower CO₂ emissions from natural gas.”

Kairos Aerospace engineers review real-time data gathering in flight.
Kairos Aerospace engineers review real-time emissions data gathered in flight. Source: Kairos Aerospace

A clearer understanding of the true impact from methane might do little to diminish the drive to expand gas supplies as the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine intensifies. European nations like Germany, looking to secure new gas supplies rather than continue relying on Russian imports, could end up building infrastructure that will lock in gas consumption for decades. Germany is already planning a new natural gas terminal to wean itself off Russian imports. And European countries like Denmark may even try to extract more gas at home. Just as the full toll of methane emissions comes into focus, the war in Ukraine could deepen dependency on natural gas.

Duke is well aware that its financiers want the industry to take methane leaks more seriously. It is a public company, after all, and utility investors have made clear they want to see emission cuts and at least some sort of climate goal. Duke’s plan to use satellites to spot leaks is part of a push to reach net-zero methane emissions in its natural gas business by 2030. It also conserves gas, which is getting more expensive.

That doesn’t mean Duke is doing all it can to slow global warming, at least in the eyes of climate advocates. The company has faced criticism for its continued coal generation and for considering the construction of new gas plants. A report from Sierra Club last year gave the company a grade of “F.” And the climate think tank InfluenceMap recently noted that the American Gas Association, an industry group that counts Duke as a member, asked lawmakers last year to weaken or eliminate a proposed fee on methane emissions. (A Duke spokeswoman said natural gas is an important part of the company's carbon reduction goals.)

Still, there’s little downside to plugging methane leaks. Companies like Duke can build goodwill while saving more product to sell. Weintraub, Duke’s head of natural gas, says satellites allow the company to focus its efforts on fixing leaks rather than spending lots of time looking for them. Duke currently buys one flyover a month from a Maxar Worldview-3 satellite that gathers images from about 400 miles above the earth. Microsoft Corp. and Accenture Plc then crunch the data to identify which of the methane plumes spotted by satellite are coming from its sites.

The method can detect leaks as small as 40 parts per million, accurate enough to tie it to an individual meter on one home in a neighborhood full of houses. “We will all be better off, regardless of the size, getting rid of these methane leaks,” says Weintraub. —With Martin Z. Braun and John Ainger

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