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Methane emissions fall with natural gas production in the Uinta Basin, but leaks remain high

Greenhouse gas emission
Mike Marrah
Greenhouse gas emission

Oil and gas production in the Uinta Basin has slowed down over the past five years, but harmful natural gas leaks into the atmosphere remain high. Researchers from USU, in collaboration with the University of Utah, have been measuring emissions in the Uinta Basin since 2015.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports on November 16, looked at the percentage of methane emissions in the atmosphere from 2015 to 2020. Methane is a potent greenhouse house gas. One of the study authors, Seth Lyman, is a professor of Chemistry at USU Uintah Basin. He said monitoring of emissions in the Uinta Basin first began in 2010, because of the high winter ozone levels the area experiences, which are known to have negative human health effects. This monitoring only occurred in the winter, until John Lin became involved. Lin is the lead author of the study, and a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah.

Lyman explained they used atmospheric measurements taken from a plane, along with meteorological data to estimate total methane emissions in the Basin.

“At least as a percentage of the amount of natural gas produced, the amount emitted into the air is relatively high here," Lyman said.

They found that methane emissions decreased by half during the six years of their study, which is due to lower oil and gas production in the Basin. However, they found that leak rates remained steady across this time, which Lyman found surprising.

“What we expected to see is that as production declined, that maybe the total emissions would decrease, but the emissions as a percent of production, we thought would increase," Lyman said. "And so that's the thing I think that's most surprising about this study.”

These researchers are focused on methane because of its significant contribution to climate change, methane has a warming potential 25 times higher than that of carbon dioxide. Lyman said that along with methane, these wells are leaking out other chemicals that contribute to things like winter ozone and poor air quality.

The prices of natural gas and oil are now going up, and Lyman is curious to see what this will mean for emissions. “We're seeing a lot of new wells being drilled in the Uintah Basin. And over the next few years, we'll see if things go back to the way they were or if we continue to have more efficient production over time.”

Ellis Juhlin is a science reporter here at Utah Public Radio and a Master's Student at Utah State. She studies Ferruginous Hawk nestlings and the factors that influence their health. She loves our natural world and being part of wildlife research. Now, getting to communicate that kind of research to the UPR listeners through this position makes her love what she does even more. In her free time, you can find her outside on a trail with her partner Matt and her goofy pups Dodger and Finley. They love living in a place where there are year-round adventures to be had!