Greenhouse gas reporting from upstream oil and gas production isn’t new; it’s been required in the United States and Canada since 2010. The long-accepted method of understanding these emissions from industrial sources is a well-established process based on estimates.

But recent academic studies have cast doubt on the accuracy of this approach. Now, regulatory agencies are moving towards measuring and moving away from estimating emissions.

Yet simply collecting data on methane is not enough. We need to understand the context of where measurements are taken from production operations, what the limitations of new measurement technologies are, and how to use data to tell an accurate and actionable story.

Getting to one accurate version of the truth is harder than it looks.

That’s why our institution, Colorado School of Mines, is focused on this challenge — and why we have been conducting research on it since 2020. The Responsible Gas Initiative of Mines’ Payne Institute for Public Policy exists to help us better understand the challenges and opportunities related to the future of natural gas in a low-carbon economy. The Institute works with partners to define the prospects for responsibly sourced natural gas production, using credible data and independent certification.

This debate is happening in our backyard. The Colorado Air Pollution Control Division is currently developing a rule to ensure a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas upstream operations. The new rulemaking is due out in April 2023 and would define how operators calculate their greenhouse gas intensity, monitor operations to ensure compliance, and account for all emissions from their operations.

But this is still just an annual reporting requirement. Many activists want facilities to provide direct, verified measurements on a real-time basis.

While states are creating more stringent regulations for methane emissions and are starting to limit gas flaring and venting, those efforts are hampered by a lack of robust, clear emissions data.

When you measure matters. Looking at the lifecycle of emissions of a producing facility helps one understand the changing profile. Emissions from the pre-production phase (drilling and prepping the well for production) are very different from emissions during the production phase (equipment maintenance, venting and flaring) all the way to the decommissioning stage (abandoned wells). Measurements from one stage being compared to data from another only leads to a confusing, dueling data argument with no clarity on what is really happening. To compare operators, and to develop effective plans and policies, it is important to understand where emissions have come from, and when.

How you measure matters. Practical and affordable solutions for the identification and  quantification of methane emissions for production equipment and facilities exist today. There is an increasingly large body of data collected from oil and gas operations through the combination of satellite monitoring, drone or plane surveillance, and on-location sensors. Together, these provide the basic elements of a “digital canopy” or overall measurement coverage. Each of these techniques and technologies has its opportunities and challenges. While analysts need to make the best interpretation from each level, an integrated view could bring insights for policymakers, investors, regulators, and operators. Sadly, since estimation and reconciliation methods are easier to use than this fully integrated view, that single version of the truth still eludes us.

How you report the measurements matter. Involved entities are struggling with how to deal with reconciliation of the measured data, specifically big picture or “top-down” measurements versus granular or “bottom-up” measurements. The development of standard frameworks to report emissions would help tremendously. Developing data analysis skills in engineers, operators, and others involved in the process also is critical so that data can form a common trusted perspective and provide the basis for forecasting future trends and understanding the impact of new equipment designs.

Shale formations have fundamentally altered the American energy market and natural gas is being promoted as the bridge to a low-carbon future. Natural gas use has helped lower carbon-dioxide emissions from electricity generation, but methane emissions related to the production of natural gas have offset some of those benefits. Companies are implementing aggressive goals for emission reduction, yet communities, capital markets, and regulators are often critical of their efforts due to a lack of evidence of their progress.

Until methane emissions are fully measured, monitored, controlled, and reduced, the position of natural gas as a leading transition fuel and partner with renewable energy will remain open to debate.

Jennifer Miskimins, of Golden, is professor and head of the Petroleum Engineering Department at Colorado School of Mines.

Jim Crompton, of Colorado Springs, is a professor of practice of petroleum engineering at Colorado School of Mines

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Jennifer Miskimins, of Golden, is professor and head of the Petroleum Engineering Department at Colorado School of Mines.

Jim Crompton, of Colorado Springs, is a professor of practice of petroleum engineering at Colorado School of Mines