MIT: Shale gas pollution lower than thought

A new study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers shows the amount of methane emissions caused by shale gas production has been largely exaggerated, MIT said Thursday.

“While increased efforts need to be made to reduce emissions from the gas industry overall, the production of shale gas has not significantly increased total emissions from the sector,´ said Francis O’Sullivan, an MIT Energy Initiative researcher and the lead author of the study, which was released this week in Environmental Research Letters.

The findings are of particular interest in Northern Colorado, home to one of the nation’s more active shale-drilling sites, with thousands of hydraulically fractured wells.

O’Sullivan and Sergey Paltsev, the study’s co-author and the assistant director for economic research at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, found that companies are capturing about 70 percent of potential “fugitive” emissions, the gas leaked or purposefully vented during and immediately after hydraulic fracturing.

Their analysis was based on data from each of the approximately 4,000 wells drilled in the five main U.S. shale drilling sites during 2010, as well as talks with industry representatives and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials. The researchers found emissions from shale gas production to be “strikingly” lower than previous estimates of potential pollution, according to MIT.

Beyond efforts to minimize emissions, companies also have an economic reason for wanting to capture fugitive gas, Paltsev said.

“When we compared the cost of installing the right equipment to capture this gas to the loss in revenue if it isn’t captured, we found that the majority of shale wells make money by capturing the potential fugitive emissions,” Paltsev said.

Adam Brandt, an assistant professor at Stanford University, said the analysis improves understanding of potential shale gas emissions using a large amount of data, according to MIT.

“Previous studies used much smaller and more uncertain datasets, while O’Sullivan and Paltsev have gathered a much larger and more comprehensive industry dataset,” Brandt said. “This significantly reduces the uncertainty associated with potential emissions from shale gas development.”

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