Earth Sciences Department, Utrecht University, 3584 CB Utrecht, the Netherlands; Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, 3584 CB Utrecht, the Netherlands; KWR Water Cycle Research Institute, 3433 PE Nieuwegein, the Netherlands. Electronic address: [Email]
Methane leaking at depth from hydrocarbon wells poses an environmental and safety hazard. However, determining the occurrence and magnitude of gas migration at ground surface is challenging, as part of the leaking gas is retained during upward migration. We investigated migration through unconsolidated sedimentary aquifers using a two-phase, two-component (water and methane) flow and transport model constructed in DuMux. A sensitivity analysis for migration through a 60 m thick sandy aquifer showed that retention by dissolution can be significant even with low groundwater Darcy velocities of 1 m.yr-1. Retention was negligible in the absence of groundwater flow. Besides groundwater velocity, both hydrogeological (permeability, entry pressure, pore-size distribution, and residual gas saturation) and leakage conditions (depth, magnitude and spatial dimensions) determined model outcomes. Additional simulations with interbedded finer grained sediments resulted in substantial lateral spreading of migrating gas. This delayed upward migration and enhanced retention in overlying sandy units where groundwater velocities are highest. Overall, the results of this study show that for unconsolidated aquifer systems and the most commonly observed leakage rates (0.1-10 m3.d-1), significant amounts of migrating methane can be retained due to dissolution into laterally flowing groundwater. Consequently, resulting atmospheric methane emissions above such leaks may be delayed with decades after the onset of leakage, significantly reduced, or prevented entirely.