Monday, September 16, 2013

New study: EPA on target with estimates of methane leaks PNAS offers latest contribution to controversial field

(Updated Sept. 17 with statement from Cathles and link to Dot Earth post. Updated Sept. 18 with link and reference to Steve Horn’s report of industry connections to the study.)

The latest in a string of studies gauging the volume and impact of methane leaks from shale gas development supports the validity of current estimates by the federal government to direct policy.

The peer review study released Monday afternoon by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science reports direct measurements of methane emissions at 190 onshore natural gas sites in the United States. The report found:

Total emissions estimated based on measurements in this work (2,300 Gg) are comparable with the most recent EPA national GHG inventory (2,545 Gg) in the 2011 inventory, released in April 2013.

The PNAS study represents a collaboration between the industry, the Environmental Defense Fund, and academic teams from the University of Texas, Arizona State, Temple, Berkley and other institutions. It found that lower-than-expected leaks at specific shale gas well sites were largely offset by greater-than-expected leaks elsewhere in the gas processing and transmission system:

The measurements indicate that well completion emissions are lower than previously estimated; the data also show emissions from pneumatic controllers and equipment leaks are higher than Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) national emission Q:8 projections. Estimates of total emissions are similar to the most recent EPA national inventory of methane emissions from natural gas production.

The report will surely stimulate controversy on the critical issue of whether natural gas is an effective means to transition away from energy sources that exacerbate climate change, and whether the federal government is armed with enough information to oversee the industry. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, with less carbon and virtually no particulate matter and other toxic pollutants, such as mercury. But methane is a potent greenhouse gas, especially over the short term. (Oil and natural gas production also releases hazardous air pollutants  -- HAPs --  and volatile organic compounds -- VOCs -- which are not the focus of the study.)

To help inform policy, scientists are making new efforts to gauge how much unaccounted methane leaks into the air at wells, pipelines and processing stations, and what the impact is. According the PNAS study:

These measurements will help inform policymakers, researchers, and industry, providing information about some of the sources of methane emissions from the production of natural gas, and will better inform and advance national and international scientific and policy discussions with respect to natural gas development and use.

(Questions related to the industry’s impact on air are distinct from policy issues related to water pollution. The natural gas industry is exempt from federal laws that govern chemicals injected into the ground, and how the waste that flows back from wells is handled and disposed of.)

The PNAS study is one of several that have emerged in the last two years in the wake of a paper by Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea that found natural gas is not as clean-burning as advertised. Howarth, a climate scientist at Cornell University, has been involved in the discussion of methane’s impact on air since it became a pressing national issue with the advent of the domestic shale gas boom enabled by horizontal drilling and high volume fracking. Howarth and his Cornell colleague Tony Ingraffea essentially kick-started the debate in 2010 when they published a controversial paper challenging conventional wisdom that natural gas production was less of a warming threat than coal.

The topic was again in the news earlier this year when a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Uinta Basin in Utah suggested that benefits of natural gas production were offset by excessive methane leaks in the system. Climate change reporter and author Andrew Revkin offers an excellent history of the discussion – along with comments and reaction from academic stakeholders on both sides of the debate -- in his recent post for New York Times Dot Earth.

Howarth characterized the findings in the PNAS paper as representing a “best case scenario” of methane leakage because the measurements were taken only at places where industry allowed access for researchers. By comparison, the Utah study was derived from observations and measurements collected by equipment on planes that flew over broad areas, rather than relying on access to individual sites granted by industry.

The PNAS paper “is not representative of what industry is actually doing, but what it wants to be,” Howarth said. Still, he added, the study is an important addition to the small but growing body of knowledge on the extent and impact of methane leaks.  “It’s a new science, and I’m impressed with what they have been able to do in this short time frame,” he said.

Lawrence Cathles, a colleague of Howarth at Cornell who argues the climate gains from natural gas development outweigh the losses, said it was not feasible that industry could hide or disguise the volume of methane emissions. “Actually, we will know immediately, and in plenty of time to do something about it, if industry is deceiving us,” he said in a statement that can be viewed here. “In order for methane to contribute to greenhouse warming it must increase dramatically in its atmospheric concentration, and this will be easy to notice.

As expected, industry's ties and involvement with the study were immediately challenged by critics upon its release. The Public Accountability Initiative, a watchdog group, issued this statement:

The failure to disclose the significant conflict of interest of one of the authors, Jennifer Miskimins, appears to constitute a violation of PNAS's conflict of interest policy. Miskimins is listed as a professor at Colorado School of Mines in the article, but has been an employee of Barree Consulting, an oil and gas consultancy offering fracking services, since 2012 -- prior to the submission of the study to PNAS. 
The disclosure failure may warrant an erratum or possible sanctions on the authors of the study, according to PNAS rules. PNAS's conflict of interest policy is here:
A day after this assessment, Steve Horn, writing for DeSmog Blog, reported that nine members of the 11-person steering committee overseeing the study have direct ties to industry interests. You can find the list and the rest of Horn's post here.


  1. Tom,
    How are the URS authors disclosed in the report?URS is a multi-discipline consulting, engineering and technical services firm heavily involved in the operations and infrastructure of oil and gas - not just environmental consulting. URS btw, was a consultant to NYSERDA for the dSGEIS. Here's their involvement with oil and gas:

    1. Hi Michael -- I know of the URS connection to this methane study and the sGEIS only through your various tips and comments on my posts. (You can search URS on the search engine provided for this blog and you will see those.) So I can't answer your question of the top of my head, but thanks for the heads up. Also, I reported on an URS investigation – paid for by Cabot -- into Scott Ely’s claims of wrong-doing by Cabot in Dimock Pa. This is referenced in Under the Surface, and updated on this SGR post:

    2. Tom,
      Once URS purchased Flint Energy - they're hardly an environmental consultant:

      On the dSGEIS:

      EDF study:
      Matthew Harrison, Al Hendler co-authors on paper

      Scope of work disclamer:
      The scope of services performed during the Natural Gas Industry Methane Emission Factor Improvement Study may not be appropriate to satisfy the needs of other users, and any use or reuse of this document or of the findings, conclusions, or recommendations presented herein is at the
      sole risk of said user.

      This publication was developed under Assistance Agreement No. XA-83376101 awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It has not been formally reviewed by EPA, and EPA does not endorse any products or commercial services mentioned in this publication

    3. Michael, Thanks for digging out all this detail. Very glad to have this info on record here, and for future reference.

    4. Glad to help. This study and future studies (purportedly another 15) by EDF could be what turns New York State into the west Texas. Or god forbid, Northern Colorado. I'm puzzled by New Yorker's apparent indifference. Once natural gas and its liquid form become maybe a national security issue and the price doubles and triples, local concerns become less important and easily NIMBY-shamed by the neighbors who want to drill.

    5. Let us recall that URS Corporation, along with Ecology and Environment Inc. (E&E), and Alpha Geoscience, not only were hired with NYS tax dollars to write major portions of the SGEIS, but they were also co-signers to IOGA-NY's April 22 letter which asked Governor Cuomo: "Let's get the Fracking Show on the Road already!"

      Yes, they sure seem objective.
      (Maybe if I keep repeating it I'll believe it. Not.)

    6. Good point not only about the SGEIS, but also about the IOGA letter.

  2. Cathles is quoted as follows: "'Actually, we will know immediately, and in plenty of time to do something about it, if industry is deceiving us,' he said in a statement that can be viewed here. 'In order for methane to contribute to greenhouse warming it must increase dramatically in its atmospheric concentration, and this will be easy to notice.'"

    This strikes me as a very strange statement, for the following reasons:

    1) Cathles seems to be saying that rather than trying to accurately gather data from existing gas wells and gas transportation infrastructure and then using that data to project what sort of methane concentrations we can expect after hundreds of thousands of shale gas wells have been drilled, we should just wait around to see if the atmospheric methane concentrations "increase dramatically." This does not strike me as a prudent approach. Instead of doing an experiment with our atmosphere, wouldn't it make more sense to put the brakes on shale gas while the question of methane contribution is studied (along with a lot of other questions about shale gas)? In the meantime, we can get serious about energy conservation and energy efficiency--something we should be doing anyway, for multiple reasons;

    2) I wonder what evidence Cathles can cite to back up the statement that there will be "plenty of time" to do something about significant levels in methane concentrations due to shale gas development. Maybe in THEORY there would be plenty of time, but has he taken a look at how difficult it is to get the gas industry to do ANYTHING to decrease its negative impacts? In many areas, local residents can't even get the industry to address something as simple as the noise levels from compressor stations. Is the industry going to snap to and quickly, efficiently, and without protest retrofit hundreds of thousands of gas wells and a massive pipeline infrastructure with methane-leakage-reduction technology? Does Cathles imagine it will be simpler to get the gas industry to reduce its methane contributions once we have many more gas wells and pipelines than we do now?

    3) Finally, I'm still rolling on the floor laughing over the clause "if industry is deceiving us." For me, the question is: "What are the chances that this is one of those rare instances in which the gas industry is not trying to deceive us?" For pity's sake, the industry decided in which places testing would be allowed. Let's have the wells selected randomly and the researchers show up without warning.

    1. Outstanding Mary. To the point and correct. As they say in the oil patch: "if you're not cheating, you're not trying hard enough." As I say: "if you're staking out a passive position in the middle on this issue to make a living, you may afford college for your kids, but they'll be living in a post apocalyptic hellscape later in life." I don't really say that. It was more of a cautionary tale for journalists.

    2. great post Mary! I was thinking this morning, what about random testing, what about setting up monitors 24/7 in the shale fields...I have yet to have reason to believe the industry has an honest rig to stand on but I do think they serve their profit margin, ceos and shareholders well. Just cannot come up with a substitute for that word-well. This is an industry that is based on lies from day one, the landman cometh, and truly successful at that.

  3. Here's a must-read for those who are interested in the EDF/University of Texas-Austin methane study:

    "Big Oil PR Pros, Lobbyists Dominate EDF Fracking Climate Study Steering Committee"

    1. Thanks for the heads up. I have updated post and shared w/ social media

  4. This may be where this EDF study will eventually take the US:


    Many individuals, companies, and organizations contributed to the development of this report. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) wishes to acknowledge all those who volunteered their time and expertise,including James Bradbury of the World Resources Institute and the many members of the C2ES Business Environmental Leadership Council that provided comments and guidance throughout the research process. We would also like to thank the American Clean Skies Foundation and the American Gas Association for their generous support of the project.

    Name of the report:
    "Leveraging Natural Gas to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions," June 2013.

    About the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions:

  5. If it weren't for Tom's tweet, I would not know about the following important Sept. 26 press release from EDF. As far as I can tell, this is getting very little press coverage so far--nothing like the coverage given the study when it was first released:

    EDF Reveals American Petroleum Institute’s Disinformation Campaign
    Rejects Misleading Message of President Jack Gerard's Email’s-disinformation-campaign