Bakken Oil Field emitting roughly 2% of Earth's ethane, says new report

  • 2 May 2016
Bakken Oil Field emitting roughly 2% of Earth's ethane, says new report

New research in Geophysical Research Letters and partially funded by CPO's AC4 program found that the Bakken Formation, an oil and gas field in North Dakota and Montana, is responsible for roughly 2 percent of the globe's ethane--about 250,000 tons per year. 

Researchers from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and NOAA ESRL’s Chemical Sciences Division and Global Monitoring Division, with other university partners, present in situ airborne measurements of methane (CH4) and ethane (C2H6) over the Williston Basin in northwestern North Dakota, a region of rapidly growing oil and natural gas production. The Williston Basin is best known for the Bakken shale formation, which has seen a significant increase in oil and gas extraction since 2009. 

According to the CIRES release, the researchers derived a methane emission rate from this region from airborne data taken aboard a NOAA DHC-6 Twin Otter research aircraft and collected downwind of the Bakken shale region from three flights and five transects in May 2014. The average methane emission rate is significantly lower than a previous estimate of CH4 emissions from northwestern North Dakota and southeastern Saskatchewan using satellite remote sensing data, but approximately a factor of 1.4–2.3 greater than the 2013 EPA GHG inventory emission rate.


Ethane is the second most abundant atmospheric hydrocarbon, exerts a strong influence on tropospheric ozone, and reduces the atmosphere's oxidative capacity. Global observations showed declining ethane abundances from 1984 to 2010, while a regional measurement indicated increasing levels since 2009, with the reason for this subject to speculation. The Bakken shale is an oil and gas-producing formation centered in North Dakota that experienced a rapid increase in production beginning in 2010. We use airborne data collected over the North Dakota portion of the Bakken shale in 2014 to calculate ethane emissions of 0.23 ± 0.07 (2σ) Tg/yr, equivalent to 1-3% of total global sources. Emissions of this magnitude impact air quality via concurrent increases in tropospheric ozone. This recently developed large ethane source from one location illustrates the key role of shale oil and gas production in rising global ethane levels.

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