The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and West Virginia University have formed a partnership with eight companies/groups to study the fugitive emissions of methane associated with the routine operation of natural gas fleet vehicles fueled by compressed or liquefied natural gas (LNG).

“Currently there is no empirical data on methane leaks associated with natural gas vehicles [NGV], only estimates. In order to fully understand the scope of the matter, and what the opportunity is to minimize methane emissions during the operation and refueling of [NGV], hard data is needed,” said EDF Chief Scientist Steve Hamburg in a blog post Monday.

Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas and a greenhouse gas (GHG) pollutant that is many times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal contributor to man-made climate change, according to EDF. It said even small amounts of methane leakage across the natural gas supply chain can undermine the climate benefit of switching to natural gas from other fossil fuels for some period of time.

According to EDF, methane leak rates would need to be below 1% of gas produced in order to ensure that switching from diesel to natural gas produces climate benefits at all points in time.

“If fugitive methane emissions across the supply chain are below the critical threshold of 1%, a movement of this magnitude towards commercial natural gas fleet vehicles could be a solid win for the environment. Estimates based on fuel-cycle models created by Argonne National Laboratory indicate the production and use of natural gas in transportation can reduce GHG emissions by 13% when compared with burning diesel fuel, if no fugitive methane emissions leak out from the system during the production, transport or use of natural gas,” said EDF.

The study on fugitive GHG emissions from NGVs is timely, according to EDF. The U.S. trucking industry could be on the verge of a significant migration to NGVs. By 2020, 40% of new class 7 and 8 trucks sold could run on natural gas, which would be a marked increase from the current market, which is dominated by diesel fuels.

The sponsors of the study are the American Gas Association, International Council on Clean Transportation, PepsiCo, Shell, Volvo Group, Waste Management, Cummins Westport and Westport Innovations. The final results of the study will be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for publication, possibly later this year or in early 2014.

EDF also is working with leading researchers and companies to examine methane leakage across the entire gas supply chain: production, gathering and processing, long-distance transmission and storage, and local distribution. The results of the study, led by researchers at the University of Texas, are expected to be released in the coming months.

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