One of the foremost studies that measured how much methane leaks from the oil and gas industry “systematically underestimated” the amount of methane leaking into the atmosphere, according to a new scientific paper released this week.
The accusation is based on a flaw found in a commonly used methane detector used by University of Texas-Austin researchers for their landmark 2013 study, which was seen as unique because it was one of the first times independent researchers were allowed to access gas sites to take measurements.
“The presence of such an obvious problem in this high profile, landmark study highlights the need for increased quality assurance in all greenhouse gas measurement programs,” according to the new report authored by Touché Howard, a methane expert and air quality consultant, published in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Science & Engineering.
The Texas researchers sampled 150 natural gas production sites across the U.S. and used those results to calculate a national leak rate for the industry, according to InsideClimate News.
The 2013 study used the Bacharach Hi-Flow Sampler, a portable monitor that measures methane emissions, which the research published this week said has been shown to exhibit failures leading to the underreporting of natural gas emissions.
When the flaw occurs it always results in an underestimation, and it’s nearly impossible to detect the problem while it’s happening, Howard told the news outlet.
"It wasn't their fault" that this happened, Howard said to InsideClimate News of Allen's research team.
If correct, the new report raises questions about the validity of countless other measurements taken by the same instrument since 2003. Natural gas companies often use the Bacharach to report their methane emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency. The calculations feed into a national greenhouse gas inventory.
"If Howard's right, we'll need to review other emission estimates used in EPA inventories," said Robert Jackson, an earth science professor at Stanford University who studies methane leaks. "We need to sort this out as quickly as possible."
Gas and oil extraction release unknown amounts of methane. Although methane doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, it’s more efficient at trapping radiation, which makes it a major contributor to global warming.
The University of Texas study was part of a broader effort to measure methane from oil and gas operations. It was part of an $18 million series of methane studies started in 2011 from the Environmental Defense Fund [EDF], a nonprofit that focuses on reducing climate change.
EDF started the project to fill a research gap. At the time, there was little data on the amount of methane coming from the natural gas industry, and getting exact numbers is crucial to understanding whether the natural gas boom will accelerate or stall global warming.
Allen said he disputes the idea that his study was affected by a problem with the Bacharach, according to InsideClimate News.
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Reach Natasha Khan at 412-315-0261 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @khantasha.