NPR's 1A: UC expert explains risk of leaky gas wells

UC research warns of environmental impact of uncapped wells

University of Cincinnati associate professor of environmental science Amy Townsend-Small talked to NPR's 1A on Tuesday about a multimedia report in Bloomberg this month that examined the environmental risks posed by thousands of uncapped natural gas wells across the country.

For "An Empire of Dying Wells," Bloomberg News turned to Townsend-Small to understand just how much methane was leaking from abandoned or idled natural gas wells across Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Townsend-Small has studied methane leaks from oil and gas wells across the United States. Her latest study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters estimated that uncapped, idle wells in the Permian Basin of Texas could be leaking millions of kilograms of methane into the atmosphere and surface water each year.

Methane is a major contributor to the greenhouse gas effect that is largely responsible for climate change. And Bloomberg's report explained how even small leaks can have big consequences.

"Today, in the United States most of these conventional wells are either abandoned and not producing anything at all or they're marginally producing — less than 15 barrels per day. But they're the most abundant type of oil and gas well in the United States by far," Townsend-Small told 1A host Jenn White.

Bloomberg reporters Zachary R. Mider and Rachel Adams-Heard visited three states to see if recently purchased natural gas wells, some idle for decades, were leaking methane into the air. Using special cameras and methane-detection equipment, the reporters indeed found numerous examples of leaks.

But to find out just how much methane was leaking from the wells, they turned to Townsend-Small, a researcher who holds joint appointments in geology and geography in UC's College of Arts and Sciences. Using a Hi-Flow Sampler, Townsend-Small measured methane escaping from three leaking natural gas wells the reporters previously visited in West Virginia.

There she found methane emissions of 38, 50 and 91 grams per hour, which would be the equivalent over a year of releasing 134 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Bloomberg found.

Townsend-Small co-authored a 2020 study that examined oil and gas wells in Ohio that found leaks represented as much as 21% of their gas production.

"Some marginal wells are emitting more natural gas than they produce," she told Bloomberg.

Listen to the NPR 1A segment.

Read the Bloomberg News story.

Featured image at top: Bloomberg News reporter Rachel Adams-Heard and UC associate professor Amy Townsend-Small examine video of a natural gas leak captured by an infrared camera. Photo/Bloomberg News.

Amy Townsend-Small talks to Bloomberg News.

UC associate professor Amy Townsend-Small explained the environmental cost of leaky gas wells to Bloomberg News for its report "Empire of Dying Wells." Photo/Bloomberg News