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Thousands of oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania suspected of leaking methane

Published time: June 20, 2014 18:43
A hydraulic fracturing site in South Montrose, Pennsylvania. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images / AFP)

A hydraulic fracturing site in South Montrose, Pennsylvania. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images / AFP)

Thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells across the state of Pennsylvania could be leaking methane gas into the atmosphere, a new report states.

If true, it could mean the same is happening in old wells all over the United States, potentially contributing to climate change in ways that are not effectively documented by government groups like the Environmental Protection Agency.

The study was conducted by Princeton University scientist Mary Kang, and involved the inspection of 19 abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. According to a report by the Guardian, each well was confirmed to be leaking various amounts of methane – a greenhouse gas that, over the course of a century, is about 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Since Pennsylvania is home to anywhere between 280,000 and 970,000 abandoned oil and gas wells, the possibility that thousands of them are releasing methane is cause for concern.

What’s more, the EPA does not account for methane in its federal estimates for total US greenhouse gas emissions, and Kang’s study stated that Pennsylvania’s current regulations are insufficient for controlling the wells’ methane leaks. Wells are not routinely inspected by officials, and the state’s rules are geared towards liquids, not gases.

Although Kang would not comment on the issue since her study is under review, Duke University’s Robert Jackson has also conducted research revealing methane leaks to be a problem in the US, and he said it was one worth seriously looking into.

“The emissions from single wells were relatively small, but there are hundreds of thousands of such wells in Pennsylvania alone,” he told the Guardian. “The total emissions could be as much as one eighth of all methane released by human activities in the state."

Concern over a link between methane and oil exploration also made headlines earlier this month, when scientists found a link between the high levels of the gas in Parker County, Texas, and neighboring fracking operations. As RT reported previously, the Texas Railroad Commission found the link to be “inconclusive,” but closer inspection of the data by another earth scientist said it’s clear the methane in the water supply came from the fracking process.

Separate tests by the University of Texas at Arlington, meanwhile, found methane levels in the water to be much higher than the Railroad Commission did.

In Pennsylvania, though, it will likely be unclear just how much methane is being released until more studies are conducted encompassing more wells. Pennsylvania State University professor Terry Engelder said that although methane is obviously leaking from some wells, chances are that not all of them are, since some geologic formations release lots of gas early in the drilling operation and less later.

Cornell University’s Lawrence Cathes, meanwhile, downplayed methane leakage’s present effect on the climate, but said if Kang’s study is accurate, it might help to reduce emissions going forward.

“I don’t think presently leaking wells will change our perspective on greenhouse warming because their leakage has already been accommodated by the climate system and methane is only 20 to 30 percent the total greenhouse forcing at present,” Cathles told the Guardian. “What matters is how methane leakage changes in the future. If the well leakage is significant, reducing it in historic wells might reduce greenhouse forcing somewhat (and thus present a remedial opportunity).”

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