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September 16th, 2013

New Industry-Sponsored Study of Fracking’s Impact on Climate Doesn’t Pass the Smell Test

By Hugh MacMillan 

A new study on methane emissions, led by researchers from the University of Texas and URS Corporation, Inc. and coordinated by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), will be trumpeted by the oil and gas industry today and for months to come. It gives them misleading talking points they can use to deny the problem of methane emissions linked to drilling and fracking for oil and gas, and it distracts from the fact that, even ignoring methane emissions, natural gas (which is mostly methane) is still a fossil fuel and increased dependence on it keeps us on track for catastrophic changes to the climate. 

While burning natural gas produces less carbon dioxide than burning coal or oil, methane emissions at every point in the natural gas supply chain are ruining the image of natural gas as a lower-carbon “bridge fuel.” Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, at least 25 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a 100-year timeframe, and over 72 times as harmful as carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. Thus, the stakes for the corporate sponsors of this study are huge. If they succeed in convincing the public that natural gas is part of the solution, not part of the problem, they’ll be one step closer to gaining license to drill and frack for as much natural gas as they can profitably extract. Of course, they will still eventually have to face the many other problems that come along with drilling and fracking: air pollution, water pollution, earthquakes and socioeconomic impacts

The study is the first of five aimed at estimating specific sources of methane emissions throughout the U.S. natural gas system. According to the authors, “[t]he sponsors were Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, BG Group plc, Chevron, Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc., Pioneer Natural Resources Company, SWEPI LP (Shell), Southwestern Energy, Talisman Energy USA, and XTO Energy, an ExxonMobil subsidiary.” 

Although the authors reported “no conflicts of interest,” clearly each of the sponsors is invested in improving the image of drilling and fracking for shale gas, with respect to the impact it is having on our climate. This is regardless of whether the respective CEOs deny the science that greenhouse gases are destabilizing our climate with increasingly devastating consequences. We also know that the University of Texas is a major recipient of oil and gas industry money and that, by its own admission, URS Corporation is “a leading provider of design, construction and production services across the upstream, midstream and downstream supply chain, and we have established long-term relationships with some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies.” Hence, there are fundamental reasons to question the merits of this study.

Consider that the study’s sponsors provided “financial support, technical advice, and access to sites for sampling.” With this special and presumably tightly controlled access, the authors directly measured methane emissions at different well sites at different stages of development. It is very unlikely that companies allowed the methane monitoring teams to arrive without thoroughly checking the well site for any potential safety hazards, such as open sources of the flammable gas methane! Indeed, as the authors state, “The uncertainty estimate [overall, about 20%] does not include … the issue of whether the companies that provided sampling sites are representative of the national population.” That is, the bias introduced by oil and gas companies expecting and preparing for EDF’s monitoring is not accounted for in the study.

Even so, oil and gas industry sponsors of the study won’t be entirely pleased with its outcome. The authors looked at emissions from 163 well sites (many with multiple wells) that were actually producing gas for sale, and another 27 individual wells that were in the pre-production stage. For the first category, they directly measured methane emissions from (i) 150 well sites with a total of 489 wells that were producing gas, (ii) 9 wells from which liquids were being pumped out to improve gas production (“liquids unloading”), and (iii) 4 wells that had been producing but that needed “reworking” (without additional fracking) to improve production.   Of these, as the study notes, only the sample of 150 well sites, with a total of 489 producing wells, provides a data set large enough to justify making conclusions about the nationwide rate of leakage during the production stage. The authors found that methane leakage from these 150 sites was significantly higher than that estimated by EPA. Leaks from pneumatic controllers, for example, were found to be more than twice that estimated by EPA (790 Gigagrams of methane per year, compared to EPA’s estimate of 355 Gigagrams per year). Again, this finding regards just one specific link in the entire natural gas supply chain.

Not to be dismayed, industry and its advocates will focus on the study’s estimate of emissions from the 27 wells in the pre-production stage. Specifically, the authors measured emissions during “completion flowbacks” on these 27 wells, which is the process of clearing debris, mostly the sand not stuck in the new fractures, all mixed with fracking fluids, brine and gases and pumped to the surface. This is done after drilling and fracking and before gas is produced for sale. So-called “green completions” were done in most of the 27 wells monitored, meaning that the sand, liquids and gases are separated out and isolated in closed tanks, rather than allowing this separation to occur in open air as the flowback fluid is dumped into a waste holding pit. This in part explains why the estimate EDF presents is much less than that from EPA for this link in the natural gas supply chain, beyond the bias introduced by oil and gas company’s control of access to the well sites.

Another explanation lies in the small sample size of just 27 wells. According to Fred Krupp, EDF’s own president, “Sixty-seven percent of the emissions come from just ten percent of the wells.” It follows that hundreds if not thousands of completion flowbacks would need to be monitored to significantly reduce uncertainty in estimated emissions from the process and to then draw meaningful conclusions about national emissions. 

Now, even if we assume, despite fierce opposition from industry, that regulations could be established and enforced to minimize methane leakage to levels measured in this study, there is no getting around the fact that natural gas is a fossil fuel.  Burning natural gas still produces significant amounts of carbon dioxide. The IEA’s “Golden Age of Gas” scenario, which assumed a massive increase in global dependence on natural gas, would still lead to catastrophic levels of global CO2 emissions, putting us on pace for over 6 degrees Fahrenheit of additional warming. And that’s assuming, unrealistically, that global coal emissions peak by 2020 and that lower natural gas prices around the globe won’t hold back renewables and energy efficiency measures.

The question of how much methane is being emitted into the atmosphere by the oil and gas industry is only just beginning to be addressed. Recent, independent estimates of methane leakage by researchers at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, using aircraft monitoring, suggest that the rates of methane leakage in at least two active natural gas fields are much higher than the U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory’s current estimate, and much higher than what many will infer them to be if they read the EDF study. 

But we already know that if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, we need to get off all fossil fuels now. It is foolish to wait years for more studies about methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, when we know full well that the only responsible path is to rapidly remake the U.S. energy system around proven energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. We cannot afford to lock in more warming with more fossil fuel infrastructure. Unconventional fossil fuels need to stay safely underground.



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