How much comes from natural gas drilling?
By Anne Danahy December 19, 2014
McHenry Township, Lycoming County. Equipped with a gray box, a map and an SUV, Thomas Lauvaux and a team from Penn State's Department of Meteorology has been at it for hours, taking measurements and racking up the miles.
It's one in a series of road trips across northcentral and northeastern Pennsylvania, and neighboring southern New York, aimed at figuring out how much methane is in the air and how much of it is coming from the booming natural gas industry.
"Isotopes of methane will tell us how much comes from natural gas and how much comes from other methane sources, such as cows, landfills, wetlands and natural seeps," Lauvaux explains.
The mobile measurements are one of the first steps in a three-year $1.8 million study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, a project mentioned in the March 2014 White House Climate Action Plan Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions.
While burning natural gas to generate power produces about half the carbon dioxide of burning coal, the gas extraction process comes with its own challenges, including emitting methane -- a potent greenhouse gas. "Measuring emissions of methane from a large area for a long time, and determining the source of those emissions is difficult," says Ken Davis, professor of meteorology. "But that's what we hope to accomplish with this project."
A large area, in this case, means three counties in northern Pennsylvania; a long time means two years. Zach Barkley, who worked on the project as a research assistant during the summer and is continuing as a doctoral student in meteorology this fall, says measuring atmospheric methane concentrations on the fly will help the team decide where to place tower sensors that will eventually provide emissions data over time.
The chance to work on the project was of particular interest to Barkley -- giving him an opportunity to apply what he learned as an undergraduate at Penn State to an issue that literally hits home.
"I'm from Tunkhannock, a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania," he says. "Over the last few years, it's been very, very close to the center of the drilling. I've seen the town transformed from this tiny little place. I've seen all these changes happen first-hand."
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