A new study estimates the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could be off on its emissions estimates by as much as 60 percent.
Currently, the U.S. oil and gas industry emits over 13 million metric tons of methane each year. That's considerably higher than what the EPA reported most recently.
Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- another U.S. government department -- collaborated with researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The paper used measurements conducted at over 400 well pads from six oil and gas basins and midstream facilities. The Environmental Defense Fund organized the research, and the teams gathered experts from 16 research institutions from around the world.
Where did these massive discrepancies in emissions come from? Leaks. The researchers found that most emissions came from faulty equipment, malfunctions or a variety of "abnormal" operating conditions. These gas leaks alone caused the same amount of damage in 2015 that the entirety of the U.S. coal plants did that same year.
"This study provides the best estimate to date on the climate impact of oil and gas activity in the United States," said co-author Jeff Peischl, a CIRES scientist working in NOAA's Chemical Sciences Division in Boulder, Colorado. "It's the culmination of 10 years of studies by scientists across the country, many of which were spearheaded by CIRES and NOAA."
Currently, methane has roughly 80 times stronger an impact on global warming than carbon dioxide had over the last 20 years.
The Boulder study also estimated that total U.S. emissions are at 2.3 percent of production. The researchers believe that's enough to "erode the potential climate benefit of switching from coal to natural gas over the past 20 years," the researchers explained.
Not only was the leakage significant on an environmental front, but it also cost business owners extensively. The methane leakage was worth approximately $2 billion, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. That's enough energy and methane to heat 10 million homes the United States alone.
"Natural gas emissions can, in fact, be significantly reduced if properly monitored," said co-author Colm Sweeney, an atmospheric scientist in NOAA's Global Monitoring Division. "Identifying the biggest leakers could substantially reduce emissions that we have measured."
Globally, China produces most of the methane worldwide. That's followed by India and Russia before getting to the United States. Regardless of the country at fault, methane remains one of the biggest contributors to global climate change.
"A kilogram of methane is 21 times as effective at trapping heat in the earth's atmosphere as a kilogram of carbon dioxide within 100 years," according to a global index first reported by the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research.