Methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure and use in the urban region of Boston, Massachusetts

Author: Thomas Nehrkorn
January 23, 2015
Journal Article
PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)


Most recent analyses of the environmental impact of natural gas have focused on production, with very sparse information on emissions from distribution and end use. This study quantifies the full seasonal cycle of methane emissions and the fractional contribution of natural gas for the urbanized region centered on Boston. Emissions from natural gas are found to be two to three times larger than predicted by existing inventory methodologies and industry reports. Our findings suggest that natural-gas–consuming regions may be larger sources of methane to the atmosphere than is currently estimated and represent areas of significant resource loss.

Methane emissions from natural gas delivery and end use must be quantified to evaluate the environmental impacts of natural gas and to develop and assess the efficacy of emission reduction strategies. We report natural gas emission rates for 1 y in the urban region of Boston, using a comprehensive atmospheric measurement and modeling framework. Continuous methane observations from four stations are combined with a high-resolution transport model to quantify the regional average emission flux, 18.5 ± 3.7 (95% confidence interval) g CH4⋅m−2⋅y−1. Simultaneous observations of atmospheric ethane, compared with the ethane-to-methane ratio in the pipeline gas delivered to the region, demonstrate that natural gas accounted for ∼60–100% of methane emissions, depending on season. Using government statistics and geospatial data on natural gas use, we find the average fractional loss rate to the atmosphere from all downstream components of the natural gas system, including transmission, distribution, and end use, was 2.7 ± 0.6% in the Boston urban region, with little seasonal variability. This fraction is notably higher than the 1.1% implied by the most closely comparable emission inventory.

Authors: Kathryn McKain, Adrian Down, Steve M. Raciti, John Budney, Lucy R. Hutyra, Cody Floerchinger, Scott C. Herndon, Thomas Nehrkorn, Mark S. Zahniser, Robert B. Jackson, Nathan Phillips, and Steven C. Wofsy

Author contributions: Thomas Nehrkorn from AER adapted, ran, and evaluated the WRF-STILT model.

Acknowledgements: AER scientists Jennifer Hegarty, Marikate Mountain, John Henderson, and the late Janusz Eluszkiewicz for their contributions to the WRF-STILT modeling.