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Gas Drillers Can Take Heart Over Study on Methane Emissions

10/14/2013 09:28 am 09:28:09 | Updated Dec 14, 2013

First there were tales of kitchen tap water catching on fire. Next were concerns about the seepage of fluids used during the so-called fracking process used to drill for natural gas, which is employed in thousands of wells nationwide to produce low-priced natural gas.

Just a few years ago, it seemed the nation's good fortune for having discovered abundant fuel to make electricity and manufacture a host of everyday products might be reversed by a handful of critics. But public concerns about the environmental consequences of drilling for natural resources date back to just after the 1859 discovery of oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

So, the recent study from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the University of Texas on the amount of methane released as a consequence of natural gas production may be the single most comforting piece of news this year for gas producers, their customers and everyone concerned about emissions and air quality. The gas industry has worked hard to ensure that it is producing this resource responsibly and to address misperceptions about hydraulic fracturing, and it has made serious strides in reducing methane emissions tied to global warming.

The study, released September 16, found conclusively that emissions of methane from production facilities were lower than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had estimated in its last two inventories.

So why does this matter?

We have so much natural gas now, and we'll have even more in the future. It can help fuel our economy more affordably and with fewer emissions than the other dominant fossil fuel sources, coal and oil. Cheap gas has held down the price of electricity and led to a surge in the expansion of manufacturing capacity.

As a result, gas is experiencing newfound popularity. President Obama has praised the virtues of safely produced natural gas in his last two State of the Union addresses as well as during his May speech announcing his climate plan. Scientists, academics, analysts and corporate CEOs have all praised it as cleaner electricity, a low-cost resource to fuel manufacturing and a sensible American transportation fuel.

It is no surprise that the natural gas industry, to build goodwill and help sustain its recent success, took the risk to share its data for an independent review by scientists. EDF, employing a variation of the "trust, but verify" mantra made famous by President Reagan, invited key industry players to collaborate on a series of studies about the release of emissions along the gas supply chain, to be completed next year. Participants include Anadarko Petroleum, BG Group, Chevron, Pioneer, Shell and XTO Energy, among others.

The first peer-reviewed study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was based on empirical measurement of emissions from hundreds of wells at 190 sites, including the Gulf Coast, Midcontinent, Rocky Mountain and Appalachian regions.

The study's conclusions--that emission levels are much less than thought just a few years ago--is welcome news to pragmatic environmentalists. It helps inform balanced decisions about energy choices facing the U.S. It also should be reassuring to critics of the boom in gas exploration and production who have been clamoring for just such rigorous scientific analysis on its effects.

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy--no perceived friend of the fossil fuel industry-- cited the industry's efforts to cut methane emissions on Sept. 20, when she unveiled the Obama administration's proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new fossil-fueled power plants.

McCarthy cited in particular the industry's successful phasing in of so-called green well completions--where methane is recovered during the extraction process and then sold. It "actually allows companies to make money because that's the product they're producing, that's the major constituent of natural gas," she said. The expanding use of these green well completions is a major factor in EDF's findings.

The collaboration between EDF, the University of Texas and the natural gas industry may seem anomalous given the adversarial relationship that has existed for so long between the environmental community and all sectors of the energy industry, but to EDF, the relationship is paying off with an increase in knowledge that could lead to significant long-term reduction in methane emissions.

"We've always been an organization that has been led by the facts," said Lauren Whittenberg, EDF's media director for natural gas.

The bottom line is if you want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, EDF's findings suggest that the natural gas industry is willing and able to do what is necessary.