Can This Contraption Make Fracking Greener?

This computer can sniff out and pinpoint methane emissions from fracking. Courtesy Picarro

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Although natural gas production emits less CO2 than other fossil fuels, it still spits plenty of junk into the atmosphere. But backers of a new gadget released yesterday say they’ve hit on a way to help frackers clean up their act.

Boosters of natural gas often flaunt the stuff as a “clean” fossil fuel, because when it burns—in a power plant, say—it releases far less carbon dioxide than coal or oil. But with the growth of fracking nationwide, some academics and environmentalists have flagged a silent problem that threatens to undermine the purported climate gains of natural gas: “fugitive” methane emissions.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, even more so than CO2 over the short-term. And natural gas production creates a lot of it: The EPA predicts that methane from the natural gas industry will be one of the top sources of non-CO2 emissions in coming decades. A 2011 federal study found that taken all around, the total greenhouse footprint for shale gas could be up to twice that of coal over a 20-year period. The catch is that it doesn’t have to be so bad. Much of that methane is leaking out (hence “fugitive”) unnecessarily from gas wells, pipelines, and storage facilities—so much so that the Environmental Defense Fund calls methane leakage from natural gas operations “the single largest US source of short-term climate-forcing gases“.

But nailing down exactly how much methane leakage there is has proved a bit challenging: Some independent academic studies say up to nine percent of all the natural gas extracted leaks out, while the official EPA figure is less than three percent. Academics, government agencies, and environmental NGOs are at work to shore up this figure, but the effort can be costly and require teams of specialized physicists and chemists. 

Enter Picarro, a California-based scientific instrument company that yesterday released a new gadget the company says will streamline locating leaks and finding out how much methane is streaming out of them. The “Surveyor” attaches to any car, and consists of a computer, an air sampling hose, and a GPS device. Together, says Picarro CEO Michael Woelk, they can sniff out methane and pinpoint the exact spot—like a crack in a pipe—it’s coming from, then feed the data to any web-enabled mobile device in a format understandable without an atmospheric physics PhD. 

“All we have to do is drive downwind of the source,” Woelk said.

Woelk says his technology has been vetted by NOAA scientists and field-tested with intentionally released control leaks, and already made available to pipeline operators like California’s PG&E. Yesterday he pitched it at a conference of fossil fuel developers in Houston and hopes to have it deployed on fracking sites nationwide soon.

This kind of technology “is exactly what we need moving forward,” says EDF Chief Scientist Steve Hamburg. Last year Gina McCarthy, Obama’s new pick to head the EPA, pushed frackers to adopt “green completion” equipment, which can capture smog-causing pollutants escaping from natural gas wells. But there is currently no federal regulation on methane emissions from natural gas operations (Woelk said he would support such regulation; Hamburg declined to comment). Hamburg said better tools to locate and measure methane leaks are needed, but remained skeptical about the reliability of data from equipment, like the Surveyor, that could obviate the need for scientific boots on the ground.

“It needs to be taken out and test-driven,” he said.

In the national fracking debate, unassailable data about environmental impacts is in high demand and short supply; Woelk says his device can be a tool for those drillers who are taking legitimate steps to curb their methane emissions to distinguish themselves from those who aren’t, and also to provide hard data as a baseline if the federal government pursues a cap on methane.

“Transparency is good for the industry,” he said. “If they don’t fix the fugitive leak problem, they won’t be seen as a clean fuel.”

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate