A new Environmental Defense Fund-University of Texas methane gas study has exposed deepening rifts in the environmental movement over the future of natural gas.
One of the central tenets of anti-shale gas activists -- such as green campaigner Bill McKibben, NGO's like Environmental Working Group or websites like Desmogblog -- is that methane leaked during the hydraulic fracturing extraction process makes natural gas more carbon polluting than coal carbon. The assertion that 'natural gas is bridge to a low carbon energy future' is a sham, they claim. But a growing number of progressive-minded energy experts at the EDF, Natural Resources Defense Council, Council on Foreign Relations and elsewhere are taking a more science-based approach, and letting the empirical evidence guide their views.
Indeed, methane is a potent greenhouse gas, so leaks could theoretically wipe out the documented climate benefits with respect to reduced carbon emissions of natural gas, a comparatively clean fossil fuel. But the fears were based almost entirely on a contested study presented as a letter and released two years ago by two Cornell University scientists who claimed catastrophic levels of methane were being leaked by fracking operations.
In its most recent estimate based on ancient data extending back to 1990 to the Paleolithic era of shale gas extraction technology, the Environmental Protection Agency had estimated that "natural gas systems" emit about 1.3 percent of total natural gas production. Many in the natural gas industry had asserted that this estimate was outdated and way too high, while anti-fracking campaigners said it understated the methane leakage problem.
Now we almost certainly know the answer. Released September 23, the report led by David Allen at the University of Texas found that methane emissions from new wells being prepared for production, a process known as completion, captured 99 percent of the escaping methane -- on average 97 percent lower than the 2011 EPA estimates. It is the most comprehensive shale gas emissions study ever undertaken on methane leakage, covering 190 well pads around the United States.
Energy experts and environmentalists celebrated the finding that almost all the escaping methane could be captured by state of the art equipment. "The good news is that under EPA regulations issued in April 2012 most fracked natural gas wells will have to capture or flare methane during well completions staring in 2015," wrote Dan Lashof on his blog at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"We were surprised at that finding, yes," I was told by Steven Hamburg, chief scientist for the EDF, who coordinated the study, one of 16 studies EDF is overseeing and expects to be released over the next 15 months.
The findings were immediately criticized -- trashed is a more accurate word -- by Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea, the two Cornell University scientists whose dubious study had become the bible of the anti-science activist left. Howarth also had claimed that fracking could push the world over a tipping point, sending temperatures irreversibly higher. The once-obscure professor immediately became the go-to expert for anti-fracking journalists and lawmakers, even though a slew of experts discredited his research.
The polluting impact of shale gas revolves around one key issue: how much methane gas is released during extraction and across the supply chain. Methane has more short-term global-warming impact than any other fossil fuel. Howarth emerged from academic nowhere when he claimed shale-gas wells leak like sieves, venting methane half the time, spewing 7 percent to 8 percent of reserves into the atmosphere.
"That's absurd," Michael Levi, director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council of Foreign Relations, told me. commenting on Howarth's ealry 2011 estimates. "Most methane gas is either 'delivered to sales' with no leakage or it's burnt off through flaring, which diminishes its greenhouse impact."
As renowned Cornell geologist Lawrence Cathles convincingly argued, Howarth appeared to have deliberately used 2007 data in his study, a century ago by shale gas technology standards, which bumped his estimates by 10-20 times -- at least. US Energy Department, University of Maryland, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Sierra Club-backed Carnegie Mellon University study and the Worldwatch Institute each reviewed the methane leakage issue and rejected Howarth's findings as vastly inflated.
The UT-EDF peer reviewed report, which went through additional vetting far beyond a typical study, was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world's most prestigious science journals. On Monday, Howarth's co-author Anthony Ingraffea praised the study, calling it a "useful start" to answering the question over how methane might be emitted. The UT scientists also found that missions from pneumatic devices at well sites represented a sizable percentage of leaks and were at least 70 percent higher than EPA's estimates. "In total," Hamburg said, "the UT study found a leak rate equal to the EPA's most recent" -- which is far lower than Howarth's guestimate.
But by Tuesday, Ingraffea had reversed course, joining Howarth and two groups of anti-shale gas scientists in issuing a scathing press release: "Fracking Methane Leakage Study Financed by Gas Industry with Partner, EDF, Deeply Flawed". Desmogblog, which has staked its teetering reputation on the Howarth study, launched a desperate offensive, trying to frame EDF as shilling for the industry.
Hamburg defended the study as robust and state of the art. "It was totally independent," he told me. Nine petroleum companies provided access to their sites, he said, but had no involvement in the data collection or analysis.
"The study team requested of specific companies a list of all completions being done within a specific time frame -- not too far in the future -- for a specific geography," he said, outlining the study process. "They selected the completion they would measure; once on site they requested a list of all wells within a specific distance; they then selected from the list what wells they measured. All the companies have positively stated they gave the team all sites that met the study team criteria. The sample was an unbiased sample of the wells of the nine participating companies, which collectively drilled roughly half of all natural gas wells in 2011." Those figures rebuke the Howarth-Ingraffea claim in its orchestrated PR responses that UT cherry-picked a "very small sample size."
And unlike the Howarth study, which just reviewed EPA data and relied on estimates and hypotheticals, "the researchers actually went to the sites. What makes the study unique is that we were able to get detailed measurements. Flyovers are a critical tool that we are also deploying, but they are not a substitute for getting data at the source of well completions and makeovers if our goal is to understand where leaks are occurring and mitigate emissions."
The insinuation that EDF is corrupt and in bed with industry, while Howarth and Ingraffea are independent researchers, is belied by the facts. Much of the anti-fracking research at Cornell, including Howarth's modest burst of now discredited scholarship, is possible because of the generous support of the Park family of Ithaca, through its well-endowed trust, the Park Foundation. The foundation funded the totemic movies of the anti-shale gas movement, Gasland and Gasland II, the cinematically engaging but scientifically questionable Josh Fox documentaries aired on HBO. All told, it's poured millions of dollars into anti-fracking ventures in recent years.
It's more than likely Park money is funding organizations behind the coordinated response campaign to the Texas study and the attempt to smear the Environmental Defense Fund. Howarth has established money ties to Park. Two years ago in an interview for an investigative story on Park and Howarth for Ethical Corporation, the Cornell professor blurted out to me that he was recruited by a Park Foundation family member who thought a university study criticizing fracking and challenging the 'green credentials' of shale gas would advance the cause.
At that time, Howarth and his wife, Roxanne Marino, a biochemist at Cornell and partner at his lab, were well-known long-time environmental activists and outspoken opponents of developing shale gas reserves. He pocketed $35,000 of Park's money -- before beginning his research. The transaction has at least the appearance that Howarth had a preconceived conclusion and that he may have cooked the speculative data that he chose to use to conform with his anti-fracking ideology.
"I'm a scientist and I let the data do the talking," EDF's Hamburg told me. "This was a first class study. We have 90 collaborators around the country contributing to the 16 studies that have been undertaken. I am confident that the results of this first UT study will be born out."
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