Airborne Ethane Observations over the Barnett and Bakken Shale Formations: Quantification of Ethane Fluxes and Attribution of Methane Emissions
Abstract:The largest emissions sources of methane, a potent greenhouse gas and the primary component of natural gas, are the fossil fuel sector and microbial processes that occur in agricultural settings, landfills, and wetlands. Attribution of methane to these different source sectors has proven difficult, as evidenced by persistent disagreement between the annual emissions estimated from atmospheric observations (top-down) and from inventories (bottom-up). Given the rapidly changing natural gas infrastructure in North America, and the implications of associated rapid changes in emissions of methane for climate, it is crucial we improve our ability to quantify and understand current and future methane emissions. Here, we present evidence that continuous in-situ airborne observations of ethane, which is a tracer for fossil fuel emissions, are a new and useful tool for attribution of methane emissions to specific source sectors. Additionally, with these new airborne observations we present the first tightly constrained ethane emissions estimates of oil and gas production fields using the well-known mass balance method.
The ratios of ethane-to-methane (C2H6:CH4) of specific methane emissions sources were studied over regions of high oil and gas production from the Barnett, TX and Bakken, ND shale plays, using continuous (1Hz frequency) airborne ethane measurements paired with simultaneous methane measurements. Despite the complex mixture of sources in the Barnett region, the methane emissions were well-characterized by distinct C2H6:CH4 relationships indicative of a high-ethane fossil fuel source (e.g., “wet” gas), a low-ethane fossil fuel source (e.g., “dry” gas), and an ethane-free, or microbial source. The defined set of C2H6:CH4 that characterized the emissions input to the atmosphere was used in conjunction with the total ethane and methane fluxes to place bounds on the fraction of methane emissions attributable to each source. Additionally, substantial ethane fluxes from the Barnett and Bakken regions were observed (1% to 10% of estimated national ethane emissions), and emissions of these magnitudes may significantly impact regional atmospheric chemistry and air quality by influencing production of tropospheric ozone.