Airborne measurements confirm leaks from oil and gas operations

  • 7 May 2014
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Airborne measurements confirm leaks from oil and gas operations

A study by CIRES and NOAA study found more methane, ozone precursors and benzene than estimated by regulators. During two days of intensive airborne measurements, oil and gas operations in Colorado’s Front Range leaked nearly three times as much methane, a greenhouse gas, as predicted based on inventory estimates, and seven times as much benzene, a regulated air toxic. Emissions of other chemicals that contribute to summertime ozone pollution were about twice as high as estimates, according to the new paper, accepted for publication in the American Geophysical Union’s Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

This study was funded by CPO’s Atmospheric Chemistry, Carbon Cycle and Climate (AC4) program and is expected to be published this summer.

“These discrepancies are substantial,” said lead author Gabrielle Petron, an atmospheric scientist with NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Emission estimates or ‘inventories’ are the primary tool that policy makers and regulators use to evaluate air quality and climate impacts of various sources, including oil and gas sources. If they’re off, it’s important to know.”

The new paper provides independent confirmation of findings from research performed from 2008-2010, also by Petron and her colleagues, on the magnitude of air pollutant emissions from oil and gas activities in northeastern Colorado. In the earlier study, the team used a mobile laboratory—sophisticated chemical detection instruments packed into a car—and an instrumented NOAA tall tower near Erie, Colorado, to measure atmospheric concentrations of several chemicals downwind of various sources, including oil and gas equipment, landfills and animal feedlots.

Benzene emissions from oil and gas activities reported in the paper are significantly higher than state estimates: about 380 pounds (173 kilograms) per hour, compared with a state estimate of about 50 pounds (25 kilograms) per hour. Car and truck tailpipes are a known source of the toxic chemical; the new results suggest that oil and gas operations may also be a significant source.

Oil-and-gas-related emissions for a subset of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can contribute to ground-level ozone pollution, were about 25 metric tons per hour, compared to the state inventory, which amounts to 13.1 tons. Ozone at high levels can harm people’s lungs and damage crops and other plants; the northern Front Range of Colorado has been out of compliance with federal health-based 8-hour ozone standards since 2007, according to the EPA. Another CIRES- and NOAA-led paper published last year showed that oil and natural gas activities were responsible for about half of the contributions of VOCs to ozone formation in northeastern Colorado.

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