Measurements of Atmospheric Methane Emissions from Stray Gas Migration: A Case Study from the Marcellus Shale

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Understanding emissions of methane from legacy and ongoing shale gas development requires both regional studies that assess the frequency of emissions and case studies that assess causation. We present the first direct measurements of emissions in a case study of a putatively leaking gas well in the largest shale gas play in the United States. We quantify atmospheric methane emissions in farmland >2 km from the nearest shale gas well cited for casing and cementing issues. We find that emissions are highly heterogeneous as they travel long distances in the subsurface. Emissions were measured near observed patches of dead vegetation and methane bubbling from a stream. An eddy covariance flux tower, chamber flux measurements, and a survey of enhancements of the near-surface methane mole fraction were used to quantify emissions and evaluate the spatial and temporal variability. We combined eddy covariance measurements with the survey of the methane mole fraction to estimate total emissions over the study area (2,800 m2). Estimated at ∼6 kg CH4day-1, emissions were spatially heterogeneous but showed no temporal trends over 6 months. The isotopic signature of the atmospheric CH4source (δ13CH4) was equal to -29‰, consistent with methane of thermogenic origin and similar to the isotopic signature of the gas reported from the nearest shale gas well. While the magnitude of emissions from the potential leak is modest compared to large emitters identified among shale gas production sites, it is large compared to estimates of emissions from single abandoned wells. Since other areas of emissions have been identified close to this putatively leaking well, our estimate of emissions likely represents only a portion of total emissions from this event. More comprehensive quantification will require more extensive spatial and temporal sampling of the locations of gas migration to the surface as well as an investigation into the mechanisms of subsurface gas migration. This work highlights an example of atmospheric methane emissions from potential stray gas migration at a location far from a well pad, and further research should explore the frequency and mechanisms behind these types of events to inform careful and strategic natural gas development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)909-919
Number of pages11
JournalACS Earth and Space Chemistry
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 21 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Space and Planetary Science


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