Quantification of leaks from natural gas (NG) infrastructure is a key step in reducing emissions of the greenhouse gas methane (CH4), particularly as NG becomes a larger component of domestic energy supply. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires measurement and reporting of emissions of CH4 from NG transmission, storage, and processing facilities, and the high-flow sampler (or high-volume sampler) is one of the tools approved for this by the EPA. The Bacharach Hi-Flow Sampler (BHFS) is the only commercially available high-flow instrument, and it is also used throughout the NG supply chain for directed inspection and maintenance, emission factor development, and greenhouse gas reduction programs. Here we document failure of the BHFS to transition from a catalytic oxidation sensor used to measure low NG (~5% or less) concentrations to a thermal conductivity sensor for higher concentrations (from ~5% to 100%), resulting in underestimation of NG emission rates. Our analysis includes both our own field testing and analysis of data from two other studies (Modrak et al., 2012; City of Fort Worth, 2011). Although this failure is not completely understood, and although we do not know if all BHFS models are similarly affected, sensor transition failure has been observed under one or more of these conditions: (1) Calibration is more than ~2 weeks old; (2) firmware is out of date; or (3) the composition of the NG source is less than ~91% CH4. The extent to which this issue has affected recent emission studies is uncertain, but the analysis presented here suggests that the problem could be widespread. Furthermore, it is critical that this problem be resolved before the onset of regulations on CH4 emissions from the oil and gas industry, as the BHFS is a popular instrument for these measurements.
Implications: An instrument commonly used to measure leaks in natural gas infrastructure has a critical sensor transition failure issue that results in underestimation of leaks, with implications for greenhouse gas emissions estimates as well as safety.