Fracking-based Methane Leakage Determined to be Minimal

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has put forward three excuses to justify its increasing regulatory authority over the natural gas, an authority that was specifically given to the States in the 2008 Energy Policy Act. The first was the excuse that fracking has caused pollution of potable water wells. After years of searching, the EPA has been unable to identify a single contaminated water well. Then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson eventually came clean in testimony admitting that no water wells have been identified as polluted by fracking. 

The second excuse was the production of wastewater from the fracking operation wasn’t being properly treated. Who would disagree? However, the technology is available to properly treat or recycle produced wastewater and there have been laws in place to regulate point source discharges for decades so enforce those laws and prosecute those that don’t.

The third excuse, and the excuse currently being leveraged by the EPA, is the regulation of methane emissions from wells that employ fracking technology to produce natural gas and natural gas liquids. Scientists have for the past few years busily prepared estimates of methane emissions that the EPA has relied upon to justify additional regulatory scrutiny, yet none used actual field data. The research produced by anti-fracking researchers at Cornel University has been one of the Agency’s favorite sources of data.

Those research results have played a large role in the estimates of greenhouse gas emissions prepared by the EPA as justification for additional regulations. The EPA estimates have been extraordinarily high, so high that the air emissions from gas wells were often presented in the media as equivalent to those from a coal plant. Those pronouncements were silly but without hard data it’s difficult for the industry to adequately respond.

A University of Texas-Austin study released in August has again shown that real field data takes much longer to obtain but is much more likely to be more correct than “laboratory” estimates.    

The study found that new wells being prepared for production captured 99% of the escaping methane—on average 97% lower than estimates released by the EPA in 2011. That equates to about 0.42% of production. The study team collected actual emission data from 190 wells located across the U.S.

The UT- Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) peer reviewed report went through a rigorous vetting process and was publishing by the prestigious The Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences. EDF senior vice president Eric Pooley told the New York Times that this was “good news” although he admitted that the findings were surprising. EDF is a partner and supervisor of a program consisting of 16 studies expected to be completed over the next 15 months. 

Cornell researchers Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea immediately criticized the UT-EDF findings, not unexpectedly. It was their study released several years ago that began the media mania about controlling well methane emissions. In fact, Howart wrote that fracking could actually push the world over a “tipping point,” taking a page from Al Gore. Howarth, then just another obscure university scientist, rapidly became particularly favored by the media, lawmakers, and regulators. Much of his research, such as his finding that 7% to 8% of a well’s contents is released into the atmosphere, has since been discredited by US DOE, University of Maryland, MIT, Carnegie Mellon University and even Worldwatch Institute scientists. It seems Howarth deliberately used 2007 well data, which had the effect of bumping up his estimates 10-20 times or more.

Howarth and Ingraffea quickly responded to the UT-EDF report with a press release titled, “Experts: Fracking Methane Leakage Study Financed by Gas Industry with Partner, EDF, Is Deeply Flawed.” The claims listed in the press release are outlandish and a knee-jerk response, much like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. For example, the press release states that the facilities tested were “cherry picked” from a small sample. In fact, nine petroleum companies gave access to their sites but had no say in the wells chosen for analysis. The UT-EDF team made the un-biased site selections.

Howarth and Ingraffea have cried wolf one too many times and their outlandish responses to the UT-EDF report tells the world that any remaining scientific credibility they may have possessed has evaporated. Also, essentially calling EDF corrupt is one is too outlandish to take seriously. In fact, the UT-EDF team+extensive peer reviews is exactly how science is supposed to be conducted. The dynamic duo have burned their bridges to  both the scientific and environmental communities.

While pointing to their “independent scientist” credentials in the press release, the duo failed to mention the source of their funding over the years. Howarth’s primary funding source is through the Park family of Ithaca, through its endowed trust, the Park Foundation. The Park Foundation funded the anti-shale gas movies Gasland and Gasland II and has poured millions of dollars into fighting using well fracking techniques. It’s reasonable to conclude that the Park Foundation is funding the attack on the UT-EDF study.

Howarth, in an interview with Ethical Corporation two years ago, admitted that he was recruited by a Park Foundation family member to criticize fracking. Howarth was already well known for his opposition to developing shale gas so his credentials were purchased with a handshake and a check.

The only fugitive emissions that should be of concern are those coming from these two junk scientists.

–Dr. Robert Peltier, PE, Consulting Editor