Allen Leads Study to Measure Methane Emissions

Headshot of Chemical Engerineering Professor David Allen, The University of Texas at AustinProfessor David Allen, the Melvin H. Gertz Regents Chair in Chemical Engineering, continues to lead a research team conducting a major field study to measure methane emissions from natural gas production. Little empirical data exists and findings from the study could help guide how companies, states and the federal government measure, monitor and manage methane emissions.

Field measurements for the study began in May and will continue through early fall; the study is set for completion in January 2013. Specifically, the group seeks to estimate the methane emission rates from participating companies’ natural gas production, including hydraulically fractured wells, by conducting direct measurement techniques at a sample of natural gas production sites. Participating companies include Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, BG Group plc, Chevron, Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc., Pioneer Natural Resources Company, Shell, Southwestern Energy, Talisman Energy, USA, and XTO Energy, an ExxonMobil subsidiary.

“This study is unparalleled in its scope and approach,” said David Allen, the principal investigator of the study and director of the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Center for Energy and Environmental Resources. “Through the data our research team collects from wells and facilities in the nation’s major shale producing areas and the data we receive from the nine participating natural gas producers, we hope to bring hard, scientific findings to an environmental issue that is still not well understood.”

Allen is the author of six books and over 200 papers in areas ranging from coal liquefaction and heavy oil chemistry to the chemistry of urban atmospheres. He received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 1983 from the California Institute of Technology. For the past decade, his work has focused primarily on urban air quality and the development of materials for environmental and engineering education.

Methane, the target of his current study, is the primary component of natural gas and is a potent greenhouse gas that can be released into the atmosphere during natural gas production, processing and transportation. A greater understanding of the amount of methane emitted into the atmosphere can better inform sound policies and management of emissions from well sites.

Natural gas also burns substantially cleaner than other fossil fuels, and increased use of shale natural gas in power generation is helping reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. However, some reports have raised questions about the overall effect of natural gas usage on total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions because of widely varying assumptions concerning the potential emissions of methane during the extraction and production processes. The less methane leaked into the atmosphere, the more the climate benefits of using natural gas as compared to other fossil fuels are preserved.

All participants, including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the university, support advancing the science related to air emissions from natural gas production activities and they look forward to accurate and fact based scientific results.

“The study is unique in that it brings multiple, key stakeholders to the table to make measurements of emissions at the well-pad,” said Mark Brownstein, chief counsel to EDF’s national energy program and head of EDF’s natural gas efforts. “If we want natural gas to be an accepted part of a strategy for improving energy security and moving to a clean energy future, it is critical for all of us to work together to quantify and reduce methane emissions as may be appropriate. Such a strategy could yield enormous environmental and health benefits.”

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