January 13, 2016

Video: What Coloradans Need To Know About Methane Leaks

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The massive methane leak in California brings a spotlight not only to the leaking Aliso Canyon facility, but also to the integrity, regulation and monitoring of Colorado’s own natural gas infrastructure. For many of us, that infrastructure – a truly vast system of pipes, tanks, valves, compressors, pumps, stations, and plants that brings gas from fields across the country to the majority of American homes – is invisible, even if it’s right in our backyards. Last week, California’s governor declared a state of emergency in response to its underground natural gas storage facility that has been spewing methane for months.

Colorado is a top oil and gas producing state. Here’s a snapshot of the natural gas infrastructure in Colorado:


Data from the Energy Information Administration and the state oil and gas commission show that Colorado has:

  • 49,299 producing oil and gas wells
  • 43 natural gas processing plants, which purify natural gas so that it’s ready for consumption
  • 10 underground natural gas storage facilities, which hold processed gas
  • 27 natural gas-fired power plants, which burn natural gas to generate electricity

Why do leaks matter?

Every piece of that infrastructure has the potential to be leaky. Before gas has been processed plant, leaks are problematic because they release:

  • volatile organic compounds, which contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and reduced air quality;
  • methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

After processing, methane is the major concern, and in cases like Aliso Canyon the chemical added to the gas so that people can smell it in event of a leak can also cause health problems.

What is Colorado doing to monitor and control methane leaks?

In 2014, Colorado introduced rules requiring the regular monitoring for leaks with sight, smell and hearing tests and with infrared cameras. The rules also included mandatory upgrades to equipment that reduce leaks. However, Colorado’s regulations only apply to natural gas infrastructure that is upstream of processing plants – thus they don’t cover underground storage facilities.

This clip, from Colorado State of Mind, covers the basics of methane leaks and what they mean for Colorado:

What’s next?

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has put out draft rules for reducing methane leaks in natural gas infrastructure. A final version of these rules, which are similar to Colorado’s but don’t cover old infrastructure, will be announced later this year.
  • One of the reasons methane leak monitoring isn’t ubiquitous is that it often requires an in-person inspection. But that could change as technology improves: The Environmental Defense Fund has sponsored a challenge to develop affordable technology to remotely detect methane leaks, and the Department of Energy recently funded several on methane emission detection and reduction.
  • Check out our earlier stories on the California methane leak and on this country’s vast natural gas infrastructure.