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Fracking study sends alert about leakage of potent greenhouse gas

A new study finds that fracking is releasing methane, a greenhouse gas, from a Colorado field at a higher rate than estimates suggested. Researchers must determine if the field is an anomaly or part of a bigger problem. 

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Fracking may lead to larger releases of methane into the air than previously estimated, according to a new study.

Scientists are now trying to find out if the underestimation is unique to the gas field they examined or whether rogue emissions from such fields are also being underestimated in other areas where there is hydraulic fracturing – or "fracking" – to collect natural gas form certain rock formations.

The study, conducted by researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth Systems Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder, Colo., suggests that the gas field in Colorado's Weld County leaks roughly 4 percent of its gross annual production into the air. Previous estimates put the leakage at 1.6 percent.

The results come with large uncertainties, notes the team, which included researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder. The losses could be as low as 2.3 percent or as high as 7.7 percent.

Yet even the low end of that range is higher than previous estimates, notes Gregory Frost, an atmospheric chemist at the ESRL and a member of the team reporting the results in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Fields that rely on fracking tend to leak more methane than fields with conventional wells, some researchers say. Getting an accurate handle on methane emissions is important as a tool in efforts to fight human-triggered global warming.

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