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New report confirms methane emissions from fracking are high, more needed to understand scale

Kate Sinding

Posted September 18, 2013

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A report out yesterday from the University of Texas (funded by the Environmental Defense Fund and members of the oil and gas industry) provides the results from a study of methane emissions (a potent global warming pollution) at 190 onshore natural gas sites in the U.S.

Before getting into the findings, it’s worth noting for context that the report is the first in a series of 16 looking at methane emissions during different stages of the gas development process. So, as my colleague Dan Lashof puts it in his detailed analysis of the report, “don’t expect them to settle the controversy over the environmental consequences of natural gas production and use.”

In other words, this should not be misinterpreted for a lifecycle analysis. Industry and others are trying to spin this study as such in order to downplay the problem of methane emissions from natural gas production. But make no mistake: this does not provide a comprehensive overview of methane emissions from natural gas.

To the contrary, it looks at one stage of the process, measuring emissions from potentially the best-controlled sources. So more work will be needed to understand the full scale of the problem.

With all of that said, this report confirms earlier findings that methane emissions from natural gas production are a large contributor to climate change. Specifically, if we were to extrapolate from some of the study’s figures to a national average, the overall total methane emissions from just this one area of the natural gas production process alone is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from more than 10 million passenger vehicles per year.

Additionally, it shows that we can reduce some of this contribution with emissions-reduction technology that should be required by law across the board. NRDC has been saying for a long time that there is significant methane waste emitted throughout the production chain for natural gas development. Our own “Leaking Profits” report last year found that 80% can be prevented by using existing technology, which would cut U.S. methane pollution by one-third and save industry $2 billion/year.

The problem is, these technologies are largely voluntary and not required by law. In order to achieve significant methane reduction, we need industry to act across the board. That means getting laws on the books that require them to do so. We have already seen from past experience that the financial incentive alone has not been enough to get industry to do the right thing. Unfortunately, so far EPA has been slow to require industry to use these technologies, and regulations on the books only apply to new production sites, not existing ones. This report helps demonstrate why that has to change.

Of course, methane pollution is just one piece of the fracking puzzle. There are a number of other public health and environmental threats from fracking and natural gas development that must be addressed – from drinking water contamination to induced earthquakes, increased truck traffic, community impacts and more. Moreover, there are a number of other air pollution concerns, including emissions of pollutants (called volatile organic compounds VOCs) which cause ozone problems or smog, and carcinogens like benzene which threaten neighboring communities.

In short, this study underscores the need to close the methane leaks in existing natural gas development in order to address their serious contribution to climate change. But regardless, fracking should not be expanding in this country unless and until there are sufficient safeguards in place to protect people and communities from all of the serious threats the process poses to public health and the environment.

And we must not forget that the best way to reduce our contribution to climate change is to build up clean, renewable energy sources and use them efficiently. These are energy sources that don’t fuel the kind of extreme weather we’ve seen around the country in recent months. And they don’t put our health and safe drinking water at risk.

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Michael BerndtsonSep 18 2013 03:46 PM

Great job. You explained the process very well. So if we extrapolate the time it took to prepare the first of 16 reports, the final tally on fugitive emissions will be ready in about 20 years? This assumes the first report took about 16 months between notice to proceed and publication. By then 80 percent of the shale gas will have been extracted and the results will come in at somewhere around 2 to 8 percent. Confirming about what is assumed. That was kind of not nice. Sorry.

thomas carrSep 18 2013 09:32 PM

that's funny. The same report got the opposite headline and opinion in the Wall Street Journal.

Michael BerndtsonSep 19 2013 03:24 PM

From Steve Everley posted in Energy Collective: "Bombshell Study Confirms Low Methane Leakage Shale Gas"

I realize that NRDC is only staffed with reasonable and highly-highly intelligent workers who wouldn't use public relations (PR) language in its blog. But man, this EDF PNAS paper is being used by the image consulting industry for logrolling. And as proof - I mean unquestionable undeniable irrefutable proof - that all's good. And environmentalists hate America. And are socialist liberals who are jelly of other's success.

Michael BerndtsonSep 22 2013 05:00 PM

This work on measuring natural gas fugitive emissions is nice. However, it really comes down to project owner. Who's taking ownership of the data? Will it remain with UT Austin's Corkhill School of Engineering? Probably not. The University of Texas Center for Energy and Environmental Resources (CEER)? Maybe? So what is CEER? Is it a consortium? Who's in the consortium? Members or participants of CEER are mentioned on the website:

Consortia in academia could have a lifespan that's ephemeral and be held accountable as an urban loft condominium development LLP that goes bankrupt upon work completion.

Something seems off here. My gut feeling is that EDF is only providing public relations, sales and marketing, under the guise of environmental expertise. Basically pulling in dollars from donors other than industry. Academia is providing the scientific dog and pony show. URS and the other contractor are providing some thoughts and mostly muscle. Academia doesn't do field work well and typically doesn't carry enough liability insurance to have grad students traipsing around oil and gas well fields.

Should CEER be a consortium of industry partners, they would be project owner. If this is the case, this study and the data generated isn't public. If CEER were to give its findings during or after the 16 reports to the US EPA or state environmental agencies, then it may become public. Frankly the work product is meaningless at this point.

Beside potentially with helping keep wealthy families and investors from becoming potentially responsible parties, I'm confused why EDF or any environmental NGO would take this on.

Mark BrownsteinSep 24 2013 12:28 PM

Michael -

In answer to your question regarding the data, all of it is publicily available here:

As to EDF's perspective on the study, I invite to read more about it here:

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