A small number of leaky natural gas wells produce emissions of greenhouse gases

Written by
Molly Seltzer
Molly Seltzer, Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment
Aug. 1, 2019

A team of Princeton researchers led by Mark Zondlo, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, discovered that natural gas wells in a region known as the Marcellus Shale in the eastern United States are emitting significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere.

The largest component of natural gas is methane, which is a significant greenhouse gas. It is about 30 times better able to trap heat than carbon dioxide.

The researchers, including Elie Bou-Zeid, professor of civil and environmental engineering, used laser technology to detect and measure the concentration of methane in the air at these wells. Surprisingly, only a small subset of these wells—about 10%—are emitting methane. These small number of wells are responsible for more than three quarters of gas leaked into the atmosphere as a byproduct of extraction, Zondlo said.

Zondlo said that fixing a relatively small number of these “super-emitting” wells could lead to a major reduction in emissions, but cautioned that identifying the leakiest wells is not always easy.

The new research is the first to look at operations over the Marcellus Shale, a basin that stretches from West Virginia into New York State and is one of the world’s largest gas-producing regions.

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