April 30, 2017 1032 GMT
For the past decade, natural gas has been replacing coal as a fuel for electric power plants, phys.org reported.
It's become relatively inexpensive, and it's much less damaging to the environment if — and it's an important ‘if’ — it doesn't leak out of the system before it is burned to make power.
Paul Shepson, Purdue's Jonathan Amy Distinguished Professor of analytical and atmospheric chemistry, said, “That's because although burning natural gas is much cleaner than coal or oil, methane (which is mostly what natural gas consists of) has the potential to be even more damaging over the short term than coal or oil if it isn't handled properly.
"Methane is a 34 times more potent greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide.
"It's a better fuel all around as long as you don't spill it. But it doesn't take much methane leakage to ruin your whole day if you care about climate change."
The breaking point for natural gas leakage is about three percent. If more than that leaks, the fuel has a bigger climate effect than burning coal.
Shepson said, "The good news from our study is that while emissions are greater than anticipated, natural gas-burning power plants are still cleaner, relative to burning coal.
“This pilot study found that the amount of methane escaping from the plants was only 0.3 percent on average.”
Even taking into account previous estimates of methane leakage in the supply chain of 1.7 percent, the total methane emissions are still below the three percent threshold, the study found.
The study also found that methane emission rates were significantly higher than two sets of estimates reported by the Environmental Protection Agency; the EPA's Greenhouse Gas Inventory of Emissions and Sinks estimated that total methane emissions from all US refineries and natural gas power plants was negligible in 2014.
However, this study estimated that annual methane emissions may actually be 11-90 times higher for refineries and two to 120 times higher for natural gas power plants than those calculated from data provided by facility operators and reported to the EPA's Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, and used in the Greenhouse Gas Inventory of Emissions and Sinks.
Shepson added, "There is much more methane being released into the atmosphere by leaky compressors, valves, and industrial hardware.
"But the good news here is that you can take a specialized infrared camera around the plant to find the leaks and then patch the them with a wad of bubblegum. I'm joking about that, of course, but the point is that it's a relatively easy thing to fix."
The study's paper was released by the journal Environmental Science and Technology, which is produced by the American Chemical Society.
The study conducted in collaboration with the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, with funding provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Joseph Rudek, a lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and a coauthor on the paper, said that natural gas power plants and refineries could be a significantly unaccounted-for source of methane emissions.
"More measurements are needed to better understand the methane emissions from these sectors."
Steve Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said that the leaking methane will especially diminish the environmental effects of using natural gas over the first few critical decades.
He said, "There is the capacity to cost-effectively reduce methane emissions associated with use and production of natural gas, so there's no excuse for the waste and serious long-term impacts.”
The study was conducted using Purdue's flying atmospheric chemistry laboratory, the Airborne Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, or ALAR.
The ALAR is a modified Beechcraft 76 Duchess that flies at a height of two to four kilometers collecting air samples and conducting sophisticated measurements.
Shepson added, "ALAR is a unique machine, and it was created by combining three of Purdue's major strengths: atmospheric sciences, analytical chemistry, and aviation technology.”
Shepson added the benefit of this research is that everyone involved will be able to improve the emission factor formulas used in calculating the amount of methane entering the atmosphere based on the total emissions of the plants, not just the amount going up the smokestacks.
He said, "But the important overall message of the study is to say while natural gas power plants appear to provide a climate benefit, it can still be easily improved.”