Pennsylvania Methane Emissions Continue to Fall as Production Rises

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) recently released its “2015 Air Emissions Inventory for Unconventional Natural Gas Operations,” an annual report on emissions from unconventional production, processing operations and compressor stations. And despite some early alarmist reports from anti-fracking PennFuture, the overall news from the report is positive — particularly with regard to methane emissions.

As former PADEP Secretary Mike Krancer pointed out shortly after the data was released, the report shows that methane emissions are down significantly since 2012. Specifically, the report shows Pennsylvania natural gas system methane emissions have decreased 8.5 percent since 2012 despite the fact that the number of well sites reporting has increased 15 percent, the number of midstream facilities reporting has increased 18 percent and Pennsylvania natural gas production more than doubled during that timespan.

Though the report shows that methane emissions rose four percent from 2014 to 2015, it is important to note that PADEP attributed the trend to an increase in the number of sources reporting (277 more well sites and 26 more midstream facilities reported in 2015 than 2014). And with that fact in mind, the agency explains that emissions per facility are actually decreasing:

“The average methane reported from each mid-stream compressor station decreased from 106.9 tons in 2012 to 97.5 tons in 2015. The average emission per well site was 8.3 tons in 2012 and 5.8 tons in 2015. Year to year changes in other emissions are related to a variety of factors, including where wells are drilled and types of equipment being used.” (emphasis added)

That’s an 8.8 percent reduction for average compressor station emissions and a 30 percent average emissions reduction at well sites. But how these emissions stack up when compared with the rise in production in the Marcellus during this same time period is perhaps even more important.

Krancer explained that there was a 59 percent reduction in methane emissions per unit of production (one million cubic feet of natural gas) from 2012 to 2015.

Natural gas production figures source: EIA

Tom Shepstone over at Natural Gas Now created some great graphs to help explain this better. The first image shows Pennsylvania production data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) alongside PADEP emissions data:

The second image shows the rate of methane emissions in tons per million cubic feet of natural gas:

Both the PADEP data and Krancer’s figures for the emissions per unit of production refute PennFuture’s claims back in May that oil and gas methane emissions increased 20 percent from 2014 to 2015. Groups like the Clean Air Council used those misleading claims – which, according to PADEP spokesperson Neil Shader, were based on raw data PennFuture obtained from PADEP prior to vetting for reporting errors,–  in an attempt to scare Pennsylvanians by suggesting these emissions could exacerbate asthma in children across the state. The reality is the highest rates of asthma attacks are occurring in counties with no Marcellus development, and Pennsylvania’s methane emissions are in line with national reports showing low and declining oil and gas system methane emissions across the country.

According to numerous independent studies by academics and regulatory authorities, methane emission leakage rates are well below the threshold for natural gas to maintain its climate benefits.

This is especially true in Pennsylvania, where a 2015 Colorado University-Boulder/NOAA study (Peischl et. al) found exceedingly low leakage rates between 0.18 to 0.41 percent in the northeast region of the Marcellus. And according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most recent Greenhouse Gas Inventory, overall oil and natural gas system methane emissions have fallen at the same time production has skyrocketed:

“Methane emissions from natural gas systems and petroleum systems (combined here) decreased from 254.8 MMT CO2 Eq. in 1990 to 201.5 MMT CO2 Eq. (53.3 MMT CO2 Eq. or 20.9 percent) from 1990 to 2015.” (emphasis added)

Further, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) recent website updates show, in Pennsylvania and across the country, the oil and gas industry is not the cause of global spikes in methane.  From Climate.gov,

“NOAA observations, analysis, and field research campaigns suggest the increase (in global methane emissions) is being driven by natural and agricultural emissions, not fossil fuels.”

The Marcellus is the most prolific shale gas play in the country, producing over 20 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. And in tandem with improving the technology needed to increase production, the industry is also constantly striving to reduce emissions from the well head to end use. If PADEP’s latest figures are any indicator, it’s having great success in doing so.

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