Environment
11:30 pm
Fri June 22, 2012

Methane Hunters

Eric Lipsky is a scientist at Penn State-Greater Allegheny, near Pittsburgh. For years he's studied air pollution like diesel exhaust with a group from Carnegie Mellon University. Now, Lipsky is looking for methane from the gas industry.

Lipsky's team assembled at a turn off onto a gravel road in western Pennsylvania. The people who own this land allowed Lipksy's team, with their mobile monitoring van, onto the site. Helping him out tonight are a pair of undergraduates and Rawad Saleh, a PhD who is a post-doc at Carnegie Mellon.

"Mark's going to come close behind us," says Lipsky.

"You guys go first" says Saleh.

In the back of the van Lipsky's driving is $300,000 worth of monitoring equipment, so he inches the vehicle down a steep road surrounded by fields.

'We've done a few well sites. I'd expect to see some methane. Our GC should expect to see some peaks in a lighter hydrocarbon here," Lipksy says.

The GC is a gas chromatograph, which measures chemicals in the air. That's different from a methane monitor. His group recently got a really nice one for the van.They started measuring methane at gas wells a few weeks ago, but for Lipsky this day has actually been years in the making: writing grants, rigging the van, and contacting landowners to get access to their property.

At the top of a hill, we get to a well pad. It's just a handful of pipes coming out of the ground, running into tanks and other equipment. Outside the van, Lipsky spells out his plan.

"I haven't been on it yet but supposedly there's a road that'll get us to the top of the ridge," he says.

It's a beautiful evening in western Pennsylvania, but Lipsky is worried about wind. Too much wind and emissions can get blown off the pad. No wind is also bad because the methane will just go straight up into the air.

"It might actually be okay tonight since it's so calm, stuff might actually mosey its way over and sit low," Lipsky says.

Methane is hard to detect because it's so light. Think of millions of small helium balloons getting released out of a cage. If you're standing even 20 feet away from the cage, you wouldn't catch any balloons, so getting permission from the couple that owns the well is key.

"This is exciting guys, don't you think?" Lipsky asks his colleagues.

They park the van next to two large green tanks that catch liquids coming out of the well. Inside the cab of the van, Lipsky and Saleh stare at a monitor.

"Oh my God. So that's the residence time right there, huh? Wow! Whoa! Oh my God! We're so excited," Lipsky exclaims.

The readouts are for two types of methane, named after different forms of carbon they are made of.

"We're seeing methane 12, methane 13 — the methane 12 is the highest we've ever seen. We're up to 20 parts per million right now and it's still rising. So it's 10 times higher than background right now," Lipsky says.

Lipsky wants to check the gas chromatograph (GC) for telltale chemicals in the air. If he finds them there, it's a strong indicator that the methane we're seeing is from the gas well itself. And lo and behold, that's exactly what he sees.

"So this is what we call a signature. Congrats," Lipsky says.

"You hit the jackpot," exclaims Saleh.

"It's exciting for us because there's something for us to understand. As a scientist you want to see something either that you expect or that you don't expect. Either of those are good," says Lipsky.

They move to the other side of the well, just 30 feet away, and methane levels are normal, as if there was no gas well anywhere close to us.

"We're definitely fairly clean right now. We can just go over and see if we can smell it where it was," Lipsky says.

So he double checks what the machines are saying, that there's gas on one side of the well, but not the other, with the smell test.

"Oh yeah, it's coming from here. Yuck. Don't take a deep breath," Lipsky says.

It's like what you smell at the gas station, but stronger. They take a few other measurements up a ridge. The air there is fairly clean.

"But the methane's pretty much flat, at what we'd call ambient, maybe slightly elevated," Lipsky says.

"It is slightly elevated," Saleh agrees.

"Normally we'd see 1.8. We're seeing 1.95, which doesn't seem like a lot, but it is", Lipsky says.

Just before midnight, they take their last reading and pack up. They've definitely seen something tonight, but what isn't exactly clear. It could be they've picked up a small leak from a very productive gas well. Or the well's using outdated technology. Back on the road, Lipsky says he'll need months of testing and analysis to answer these questions.

"When you're measuring stuff like this, you never know what the real answer is," Lipsky says. "Sometimes I'll get all excited and afterwards … it's like, 'Oh, it was nothing.'"

A few weeks later, I caught up with Lipsky. He'd tested a few more wells, and they'd shown lower methane readings, but still higher than normal. He also went back to the well we visited, but with no monitoring equipment. The smell was gone, he says, and it looked like the company had moved some pipes around. Maybe, he says, someone fixed the leak. Eric Lipsky hopes to publish a paper on his van measurements next year.

This story is part of "Gas Planet," a special presentation of the Allegheny Front.