Methane Leaks from Natural Gas Systems Follow Extreme Distributions

Garvin Heath, Adam Brandt, Daniel Cooley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

182 Scopus Citations


Future energy systems may rely on natural gas as a low-cost fuel to support variable renewable power. However, leaking natural gas causes climate damage because methane (CH4) has a high global warming potential. In this study, we use extreme-value theory to explore the distribution of natural gas leak sizes. By analyzing ∼ 15 000 measurements from 18 prior studies, we show that all available natural gas leakage data sets are statistically heavy-tailed, and that gas leaks are more extremely distributed than other natural and social phenomena. A unifying result is that the largest 5% of leaks typically contribute over 50% of the total leakage volume. While prior studies used log-normal model distributions, we show that log-normal functions poorly represent tail behavior. Our results suggest that published uncertainty ranges of CH4 emissions are too narrow, and that larger sample sizes are required in future studies to achieve targeted confidence intervals. Additionally, we find that cross-study aggregation of data sets to increase sample size is not recommended due to apparent deviation between sampled populations. Understanding the nature of leak distributions can improve emission estimates, better illustrate their uncertainty, allow prioritization of source categories, and improve sampling design. Also, these data can be used for more effective design of leak detection technologies. (Graph Presented).

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)12512-12520
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number22
StatePublished - 15 Nov 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 American Chemical Society.

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-6A20-65423


  • extreme value
  • fat tail
  • methane
  • natural gas
  • statistics


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