Research

Methane release at Cuadrilla’s fracking site equivalent to 142 trans-Atlantic flights – study

A six-day methane gas release at Cuadrilla’s fracking site near Blackpool had the same carbon footprint as 142 flights from London to New York, new research has concluded.

Cuadrilla’s shale gas site at Preston New Road, near Blackpool, 29 December 2019. Photo: Maxine Gill

A monitoring station, installed by researchers from Manchester University, detected the methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, after it was emitted from the site at Preston New Road.

Analysis showed the methane had been released, unburnt, through the flare stack, from 11-16 January 2019. The researchers estimated about 4.2 tonnes had been emitted.

The release happened during a nitrogen lift operation. This pumped nitrogen into the PNR1z well to unload unwanted fluid and improve gas flow after fracking in October-December 2018.

Cuadrilla confirmed that the flare failed to light and a mixture of methane and nitrogen was vented, unburnt, into the atmosphere.

The Manchester study, reported this week in the Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association, claimed to be the first estimate of methane emissions during a nitrogen lift process for gas extraction.

It said the 4.2 tonnes of methane equated to 143 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, assuming the usual 100-year time period to measure global warming potential (GWP100 value).

The study said:

“The GWP100 value is equivalent to the carbon footprint of 516 MWh of electricity consumed from the UK National Grid: the annual electricity demand of 166 households. Alternatively, equivalence can be drawn with 142 London–New York flights.”

The leader of the project, Professor Grant Allen, professor of atmospheric physics at Manchester University, said:

“Our work shows that atmospheric monitoring of shale gas activity is crucial to meaningfully assess any role that the industry may have in the UK’s future energy mix and whether it can (or cannot) be consistent with the UK’s stated aim of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“This work informs that debate and provides new data on emissions from well-clearing activities that must be captured in industry life cycle assessments, and should be used to inform regulatory oversight and industrial practices surrounding venting activities such as the event quantified here. Such emissions should be avoided wherever possible.”

Dr Jacob Shaw, research associate at Manchester and lead author of the paper, said:

“The dangerous consequences of global warming are now beginning to become evident. Routine monitoring and scrutiny of the fossil fuel industry is crucial if we are to curb impacts, and also if we are to meet the UK Government’s Net Zero targets.”

The study said estimates of methane emissions in the exploratory phases of fracking and nitrogen lift operations had not previously been available for environmental impact assessments.

The emission rates associated with well development, well-unloading, and well-stimulation activities were under-represented, it said, and could be a large proportion of a shale well’s lifecycle emissions.

It added:

“the UK Government should consider using Reduced Emission Completion procedures to capture flowback emissions from well-unloading and flowback operations, should onshore shale gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing continue in the future.”

The researchers identified the methane emissions at Preston New Road by comparing monitoring data with two years of baseline measurements. They took into account variability due to season and wind direction.

They used three different methods to estimate the methane release rate. They said the peak release rate for methane during January 2019 was estimated at about 70 grams per second, with an average over the whole week of 16 grams per second.

DrillOrDrop reported last year that the British Geological Survey had identified several peaks in methane concentrations at Preston New Road in mid-January 2019, at about 400% above typical levels. At the time, Cuadrilla said there had been three short spikes. But it did not respond to our request for information about the volume of the methane releases.

In May 2019, the Environment Agency (EA) released information that it had warned  Cuadrilla about venting methane at Preston New Road. The EA also recorded three breaches of the site’s environmental permit and estimated 2.7-6.8 tonnes of methane had been vented during nitrogen lifting.

At the time, the permit prohibited venting unburned methane “except where necessary for safety reasons”. The EA said there were four reports of methane above the external notification threshold of 7.1 parts per million (ppm) and two reports above the internal threshold of 5.0 ppm.

In October 2019, after regulators suspended fracking at Preston New Road, Cuadrilla was granted permission to use nitrogen lifting. The EA accepted that the process may “may result in the release of uncombusted formation natural gas (which is principally methane), known as venting.”  

That month, a study for the EA concluded that emissions from flares could be underestimated because not all the methane would be burnt, particularly when gas flow was low.

6 replies »

  1. I do not think that the authors know how RECs work, by saying

    “the UK Government should consider using Reduced Emission Completion procedures to capture flowback emissions from well-unloading and flowback operations, should onshore shale gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing continue in the future.”

    RECs are not really much good for wells undergoing nitrogen lift, and getting nitrogen rich gas, this is the scenario they have studied.

    Portable equipment is brought on site to separate the gas from the solids and liquids produced during the high-rate flowback, and
    produce gas that can be delivered into the sales pipeline. RECs help to reduce methane, VOC, and HAP emissions
    well cleanup and can eliminate or significantly reduce the need for flaring.

    I cannot remember there being any high rate flowback from the Preston Road Wells, which is why they needed nitrogen lift, and the site did not have compression and a link to the local grid either.

    So, I am not sure why they draw that conclusion for wells that need N2 Lift, when RECs are for wells that have high rate flowback (ie flow all on their own).

    Click to access reduced_emissions_completions.pdf

  2. How do you separate the methane output from the site, with that from the surrounding cows? Are the sensors that sensitive?

    Cows are not usually kept in the same fields for two years, or removed for two years, so a two year “baseline” seems a bit odd. Even if that were the case, the output from the cows could quite easily have been modified via diet (Giggle it.) I recall the air pollution claim at KM-which peaked through the activity of the antis!

    • I haven’t had time to read their study properly, but isn’t there a way of separating the detection of biomethane from cows and methane from fossil fuels? In any case biogenic methane is often reabsorbed as part of the normal carbon cycle, unlike fossil fuel versions which have been locked away for aeons and is an additional pollutant to atmospheric global warming gases. https://clear.ucdavis.edu/explainers/why-methane-cattle-warms-climate-differently-co2-fossil-fuels

      However, global industrial meat production and intensive meat farming generally is linked to negative environmental impacts, human health, animal/human diseases/excessive antiobiotic use (resistance) and animal welfare.

      It is a sick world where fascists like Bolsonaro are encouraging gangs of farmers, oil and logging barons in Brazil to murder indigenous people who get in the way of them burning the Amazon rainforest/ biodiversity and accelerating catastrophic climate change. All for fast food multinational corporations.

      Dread to think what kind of appalling factory farmed animal products are going to be sold in the UK from the US, now the higher British farm animal welfare and health standards are being undermined post-Brexit. “Taking back control” lol.

      • Well, DPNP, no sign of the cattle in the fields at PNR having ANYTHING to do with “global industrial meat production”, but suppose there was no intention to maintain any reality within your comment.

        Why will products from US be any different from products from EU that are already sold in the UK, although our own British farm animal welfare and health standards are ALREADY higher than in EU?? Yet, many in the UK continue to purchase those imported products, and not just from fast food corporations. Sow stalls and castration of pigs comes to mind, for starters. So, really what you are saying is that EU good, US bad, although both have some different standards to those applied in UK. Yes, “taking back control”, because UK WILL be able to exclude products from BOTH EU and US if it wants in the future. Not able to do that now. And, no, EU is not good in many areas, so I will look forward to UK being able to make it’s own, better choices. I certainly do NOT want EU standards just transferred to UK-they are NOT that good.

        Oh, and by the way, you may find some of UK meat production is currently owned by those nasty Brazilians! And your generalisation about meat farming is nonsense. Human health has been VASTLY improved in many areas of the world due to low cost meat supply being made accessible to the populations, and antibiotic resistance is more related to excessive prescribing by doctors, many pressured by parents wanting antibiotics for their kids colds-although antibiotics don’t work for viruses! Animal welfare? Hmm. Try looking at free range pigs/chickens in the middle of an arctic cold spell. You will find all sorts of welfare issues not found within housed animals, including frost bite, and high mortality in young animals from hypothermia. Yet, free range pigs and chickens are all “happy”, as they are only ever filmed on a bright sunny day! (To make one such photo shoot “work” I recall one program spent £5k on turf from a local garden centre to make a paddock look pristine.) LOL.

        Maybe you should stick to an area that you have some experience/knowledge of, rather than regurgitate a false narrative intended to excite those who are equally lacking in those areas?

        I did note a perceptive comment recently from someone referring to those “who believe and act without asking questions”. Hopefully, I have helped a few not to fall into that trap.

        • Ok Guru MC Gandhi I don’t think that many people will be taken in by your delusional polemical ranting. I certainly won’t be taking lectures from someone who has peddled pseudo scientific BS from the Global Warming Policy Foundation for the continued advancement of disaster capitalism.

          Interesting that we managed to have control of British standards, despite being in the EU and actually helped improve EU animal welfare standards as a whole. So much so that health, sanitary and welfare standards of EU agricultural meat products are far higher than the US abysmal standards.

          Whilst UK antibiotic use is a little higher in humans than in farm livestock, on a global scale it is far higher in livestock. There’s a reason why US chickens are washed in chlorine, but not in Europe/UK, and antibiotic use in US livestock farming is way higher than in the EU. It’s because of intensive factory farmed, densely packed, stressed and consequently disease ridden animals.

          I have yet to come across a malnourished vegetarian or vegan, who generally have very good balanced diets. However, I have come across malnourished poor kids brought up on a measly diet of turkey twizzlers and chips. I think you’ll find the main cause of poor nutrition is poverty, exacerbated by increasing inequalities. As UK child poverty has increased over the last 10years, but especially now and as it looks like we are heading for a no deal Brexit, with higher costs due to import/export tariff barriers from our closest and largest trading block, it’s unlikely poverty-stricken families are going to be able to afford that balanced diet. They’ll be going for the cheapest meat they can afford, which externalises the real environmental, health and welfare costs, of course.

          Therefore, the cheap US meat will outcompete the higher standard British product, as night follows day. So unless British farmers lower their standards they could be out of that business.

          I’m not sure the indigenous Brazilians appreciate the “Human health has been VASTLY improved” when intensive meat and soy for livestock feed destroys their home, brings life-threatening diseases and outright murders their people. If you actually listened to them instead of displaying your ignorance and ignoring them, you’ll find that the rainforest provides nutrition in abundance. They have an understanding and respect for their natural provider that we have lost and could inform how we can work with our natural surroundings better, to provide plenty of, healthy sustainable food on a more locally diverse scale.

          Ignorance coupled with power is a truly dangerous thing, as we have clearly seen in the leadership of Brazil, US, UK, Australia.

          Meanwhile “taking back control”: https://www.google.com/amp/s/boingboing.net/2020/10/15/britons-alarmed-by-unpleasant-border-infrastructure-they-demanded.html/amp

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