Improved Mechanistic Understanding of Natural Gas Methane Emissions from Spatially Resolved Aircraft Measurements

Environ Sci Technol. 2017 Jun 20;51(12):7286-7294. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.7b01810. Epub 2017 Jun 7.


Divergence in recent oil and gas related methane emission estimates between aircraft studies (basin total for a midday window) and emissions inventories (annualized regional and national statistics) indicate the need for better understanding the experimental design, including temporal and spatial alignment and interpretation of results. Our aircraft-based methane emission estimates in a major U.S. shale gas basin resolved from west to east show (i) similar spatial distributions for 2 days, (ii) strong spatial correlations with reported NG production (R2 = 0.75) and active gas well pad count (R2 = 0.81), and (iii) 2× higher emissions in the western half (normalized by gas production) despite relatively homogeneous dry gas and well characteristics. Operator reported hourly activity data show that midday episodic emissions from manual liquid unloadings (a routine operation in this basin and elsewhere) could explain ∼1/3 of the total emissions detected midday by the aircraft and ∼2/3 of the west-east difference in emissions. The 22% emission difference between both days further emphasizes that episodic sources can substantially impact midday methane emissions and that aircraft may detect daily peak emissions rather than daily averages that are generally employed in emissions inventories. While the aircraft approach is valid, quantitative, and independent, our study sheds new light on the interpretation of previous basin scale aircraft studies, and provides an improved mechanistic understanding of oil and gas related methane emissions.

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / analysis*
  • Aircraft
  • Methane / analysis*
  • Natural Gas
  • Research Design


  • Air Pollutants
  • Natural Gas
  • Methane