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Thousands of gas wells have been drilled in Utah's Uintah basin. An investigation by NOAA & CIRES found that 6% to 12% of the gas produced near Ouray (by hydrofracturing) escaped to the atmosphere raising methane concentrations in air to shockingly high levels.

Each pink spot signifies a well. Zooming in reveals an extraordinary number of wells.
NOAA scientists were shocked to find levels of ozone pollution, as bad as the worst urban air quality, in the middle of desolate western Colorado in the winter of 2011. Since that discovery they have been trying to understand why the air quality was so bad in a region that had never reported air quality problems before.
On a perfect winter day in 2012 NOAA and CIRES scientists sent up a sampling plane to determine the methane levels and the quantity of methane released from oil and gas production activities in the Uintah basin in Utah. The scientists found far more methane than anyone had anticipated.

Methane levels downwind peaked at the stunningly high level of 2080 parts per billion.

When the winds settled down on February 3, a pilot flew a single-engine Mooney TLS aircraft, carrying sophisticated instruments for measuring methane and other atmospheric gases, back and forth in the Uintah Basin. The aircraft measurements let scientists calculate the total amount of methane added to the air mass as it transited the basin. Combining those data with precise measurements of wind speed, made by NOAA colleagues using a ground-based laser, scientists could calculate the methane emission for the whole basin.

The team determined that methane emissions from the oil and natural gas fields in Uintah County totaled about 55,000 kg (more than 120,000 lbs) an hour on the day of the flight. That emission rate is about 6 to 12 percent of the average hourly natural gas production in Uintah County during the month of February.
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Oil and gas industry figures for methane release are much lower. However, when wells are developed and produced by hydraulic fracturing, a large amount of gas is released in the process. A basin where fracking is ongoing may be releasing extremely high amounts of gas to the atmosphere.

Ozone pollution in this desolate part of Utah is already about twice the federal limit of 75 parts per billion on a bad day. The oil and gas industry's plans to add 25,000 more wells to the 10,000 wells producing today may run into regulatory compliance problems with air quality standards.

This winter, with the University of Utah also helping out, scientific SWAT teams have already gone out again as part of a more limited study of the basin to watch the pollution chemistry in action. Ozone exceeding the health-based standards rose to around 130 parts per billion, or not quite double EPA’s health-based standard of 75 ppb, said Brock LeBaron, deputy director of the Utah Division of Air Quality and leader of the study team.

Federal regulators have told Utah Gov. Gary Herbert that Uintah and Duchesne counties are dangerously close to being declared out of compliance with federal Clean Air Act limits on ozone.

Meanwhile, the oil and gas boom continues, with another 25,000 wells potentially being added to 10,000 already in operation in the basin.

Assertions that natural gas from fracking has a lower greenhouse gas impact than conventional sweet crude are just not true. Atmospheric scientists will continue to investigate the complexities of release of natural gasses from gas wells developed by hydraulic fracturing, but it is now clear that industry estimates of gas emissions are far below realistic values. The EPA is also using gas emissions values that are far below the levels measured by the NOAA CIRES research team.
"Most days we measured concentrations far greater than what we reported in the paper," Sweeney said. The new study was not designed to determine points of leakage.

There are plenty of potential leak sources, such as wells, processing plants, compressors and pipelines.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that, on average nationally, just 0.8 percent to 1.6 percent of natural gas production escapes. Federal officials encourage use of natural gas because burning it emits less carbon dioxide — the leading greenhouse gas linked to climate change — than oil or coal.

Methane, the main component of natural gas, packs a greenhouse punch 25 times greater than carbon dioxide. That means leakage rates exceeding 3.2 percent offset natural gas’ advantage in the short term, Sweeney said.

Natural gas has been advertised as the bridge to a green future of renewable power and a stable climate. Fracking, on the other hand, uses enormous amounts of precious fresh water and releases massive amounts of the powerful greenhouse gas methane to the atmosphere. The EPA and the President have good intentions when they encourage increased gas production, but the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The massive methane emissions discovered by this study are the road to climate Hell.

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Originally posted to Climate Change SOS on Wed Aug 07, 2013 at 06:44 PM PDT.

Also republished by DK GreenRoots.

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