The Uinta basin is bleeding methane out as leaks go undetected

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Up to 8% of the Uinta Basin’s natural gas production is released into the atmosphere, an indication that methane emissions from the basin are among the worst in the country for power-generating regions, according to a new study from the University of Utah.

Monitoring data suggests that leaks from wells, pipelines, compressors and processing plants release 6 to 8% of the natural gas pulled from the ground in northeastern Utah, a tremendous waste of a largely publicly owned natural resource. These “volatile” emissions also represent an avoidable threat to the climate. Methane, the main component of natural gas, has a much stronger greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.

It is estimated that 2.3% of US natural gas production is released into the atmosphere, which other research suggests accounts for 30% of the country’s man-made methane emissions. Other main sources are coal mines, landfills, and possibly cattle gas.

The Biden government highlighted “fighting methane” as one of its strategies to meet its goal of halving the country’s greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 to 2030. On November 2, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed stricter standards and guidelines to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Those rules would cut emissions by 41 million tons by 2035, the agency said.

Despite the severity of the effects of methane, it has been difficult to quantify these fugitive emissions. Labor-intensive methods of checking oil and gas locations for leaks have proven to be unreliable. But a research team led by John Lin, a US atmospheric scientist, is now using long-term monitoring data to determine how much methane is leaking from the Uinta Basin oil and gas operations.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A drill rises above wells in the Uinta Basin east of Vernal on November 17, 2021 as drilling activity picks up amid rising oil and gas prices. A new study from the University of Utah found that 6 to 8% of the pool’s gas production escapes into the atmosphere. This photo was taken on a flight chartered by LightHawk.

According to a peer-reviewed study published this week in Scientific Reports, Lin’s team documented how basin methane emissions have halved since 2015, virtually in step with declining natural gas production over the same period as commodity prices fell.

“This means that the leak rate has remained constant – albeit high – despite falling natural gas production,” said Lin. Previous research suggested that lower production wells would have higher levels of methane leakage.

“This could be responsible for the generally high leakage rate in the Uinta Basin as the average Uinta well produces less gas compared to many other counterparts in the US,” said Lin. “Nevertheless, it was surprising that the leak rate did not increase because the Uinta wells in production decreased.”

Its results support similar findings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) eight years ago, which estimated that 6 to 12% of the basin’s production was airborne.

This study was based on a one-day snapshot based on air samples collected during overflights.

The new study, on the other hand, is a look at methane concentrations over time as recorded by the NOAA 2015 installed measuring stations that record the methane concentrations in the area at three locations. At just six years old, this land-based monitoring program is the oldest in the country, specifically installed to measure methane levels in an oil and gas production region.

The westernmost station in Fruitland was set up to record baseline levels, while the eastern one is in the Uintah County’s gas producing hotspot south of Vernal known as Horsepool. The middle one is on Castle Peak in Duchesne County, a stronghold for oil. Methane is a by-product of crude oil production and is often flared at the wellhead.

It is not surprising that the highest methane levels were measured at the Horsepool site.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The standard volumetric unit of natural gas is 1,000 cubic feet, or mcf.

During the study period, natural gas production in the basin decreased from 320 million mcf to 190 million as the wells subsided. At current spot prices of around $ 5 per mcf, the value of the gas this year would be between $ 57 million and $ 75 million.

“An attempt at such a CH4. to reduce [methane] Leaks in the oil / gas infrastructure would not only bring climate benefits, “the study says,” but could also help the energy industry to recover at least part of the costs invested in leak detection and repair by recovering an economically valuable product. “

It would also improve local air quality.

In the Uinta basin, methane with organic compounds, precursors of ozone formation, is emitted, which leads to significantly high ozone values.

“In addition to the more obvious and more important health implications for the residents of the basin, air quality issues lead to increased regulation of oil and gas production, which increases costs, and those costs are passed on to consumers,” said co-author Seth Lyman, director of Bingham Energy Research Center at Utah State University in Vernal.

Natural gas can leak in myriad locations as it moves through the supply chain from the wellhead to homes. Aside from the wells and pipelines, gas leaks from dehydrators, collection and compression stations, pneumatic controls, and from devices that handle liquid hydrocarbons such as loaders and storage tanks.

Lin said leak detection technologies such as drones and infrared imaging have improved in recent years, so methane emissions may not necessarily increase if basin production picks up again after a price hike now underway.

“This will depend on decisions made by individual companies as well as changes that have occurred or may occur in the regulatory landscape,” said Lyman.

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