Methane leaks cast doubt on shale gas climate credentials

US scientists have once again warned large amounts of methane could be leaking from new onshore gas drilling projects, challenging claims the fuel can offer a lower emissions alternative to coal.

Around nine per cent of the potent greenhouse gas methane produced by a gas field in Utah was shown to be escaping into the atmosphere, according to preliminary results published in Nature by a team comprising researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado in Boulder.
It follows a study published by the same scientists in February last year suggesting up to four per cent losses of methane at a field near Denver.

The US has seen energy prices tumble as a surge in onshore shale gas production has allowed energy generators to switch from coal to gas. The gas industry has argued that the move has helped to cut US greenhouse gas emissions, as gas is significantly less carbon intensive than coal.

Shale gas developers maintain projects can effectively minimise methane emissions and quickly detect any leaks. But any evidence of high levels of methane emissions would represent a blow to the industry, which is currently looking to expand into Europe and Asia.