A warning sign for a natural gas pipeline is seen as gas flares at an oil pump site in North Dakota. About 30 percent of the state's gas production is being burned off because pipeline development and processing facilities have not kept pace with production. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The amount of the heat-
trapping gas methane
in the atmosphere is considerably great­er than government estimates, a problem significantly fueled by leaks from the U.S. natural gas system, according to a study released Thursday.

The leak rate probably is large enough to negate the value of converting buses and trucks from diesel to natural gas, as governments and private companies have done to help slow the warming of the planet, the scientists concluded.

But even with the current leaks, burning natural gas instead of coal is producing less heat-trapping gas and will slow the rate of climate change over 100 years, the researchers said in their study, published in the current issue of the journal Science.

They also determined that the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for gas trapped in rock formations is “unlikely to be a dominant contributor” to total methane emissions.

“If natural gas is to be a ‘bridge’ to a more sustainable energy future, it is a bridge that must be traversed carefully: Diligence will be required to ensure that leakage rates are low enough to achieve sustainability goals,” the team wrote.

At least 1.5 percent of natural gas escapes into the atmosphere.

Fortunately, the researchers added, that task is achievable, because a large share of the leaked gas comes from a tiny number of “super-emitters,” devices or other parts of the gas and oil system that are allowing disproportionate emissions.

The scientists, from universities, national laboratories and government agencies, reviewed more than 200 studies with conflicting methodologies in what a news release called the first comprehensive look at North American methane emissions. They considered studies that totaled leaks directly from equipment, as well as research that measured the gas in the atmosphere, using aircraft and towers. The research was led by Adam R. Brandt of Stanford University.

Although methane is much less common in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, the primary contributor to global warming, it is much more effective at trapping heat — perhaps 30 times as potent, the researchers said.

Natural gas is composed mainly of methane. As natural gas is extracted from the earth, processed and transported through pipes to consumers, about 1.5 percent of it escapes, the researchers concluded. Some natural gas is released intentionally by drillers. Oil exploration also releases methane.

The study concluded that estimates of methane in the atmosphere by the Environmental Protection Agency, begun in the 1990s, are probably 50 percent too low, for a variety of reasons. In a telephone news conference, the researchers said they are working with the EPA to reconcile the differences.

“We are in discussion with EPA as scientists who have tried to synthesize the available evidence, and they are very interested in hearing” the researchers’ views, said Garvin Heath, a senior scientist with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and one of the authors of the study.

The researchers could not pinpoint the natural gas system’s leakage rate. They did not offer an estimate of how much the transition from coal to natural gas in sectors such as electricity generation is slowing global warming.

Livestock also emits substantial — and probably undercounted — amounts of methane, and more comes from natural openings in the ground above gas and coal deposits, the researchers noted.

Nathan G. Phillips, a Boston University researcher who was part of a study, published in January, that found nearly 6,000 methane leaks in the District of Columbia’s aging natural gas system, said one of the new study’s conclusions provides reason for optimism.

“If we can fix relatively few big problem spots, we may have a relatively large payoff in terms of stemming the total leak problem, at least with respect to greenhouse gas emissions,” he said in an e-mail.

Phillips’s colleague Robert B. Jackson, who teaches at Duke and Stanford universities but was not part of the group whose research was released Thursday, said in an e-mail that “most oil and gas operations leak a little bit, but once in a while I find one that leaks a thousand times faster. Those are the leaks that need to be identified quickly and fixed.”

The conclusion about fracking is based on methane totals before the boom in that method of extracting natural gas, and on counts of methane at fracking sites.

“This is a lot of methane. It’s not trivial, but it’s not considered a main contributor,” Brandt said at the news conference. “The math just doesn’t work out.”

The switch from diesel to natural gas in heavy vehicles, the researchers said, probably has not been worthwhile in slowing climate change, even if it has helped to improve air quality.

“Fueling trucks and buses with natural gas may help local air quality and reduce oil imports, but it is not likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even running passenger cars on natural gas instead of gasoline is probably on the borderline in terms of climate,” Brandt said in a news release.