By John Upton
The latest research on methane emissions at fracking sites is dividing environmentalists.
A study of 190 natural gas fracking sites, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that methane leaks at the sites were notably lower than fracking critics have warned.
The New York Times reports that the study is “the most comprehensive look to date” at the issue of methane leakage during natural gas drilling and production:
The study, conducted by the University of Texas and sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund and nine petroleum companies, … concluded that while the total amount of escaped methane from shale-gas operations was substantial — more than one million tons annually — it was probably less than the Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2011.
From the AP:
The findings bolster a big selling point for natural gas, that it’s not as bad for global warming as coal. And they undercut a major environmental argument against fracking, a process that breaks apart deep rock to recover more gas. The study … doesn’t address other fracking concerns about potential air and water pollution.
There’s controversy not only about the study’s findings but about its backers. Alongside oil companies, the Environmental Defense Fund, a New York-based environmental group, was a funder. The group was already being treated as a pariah by some greens for striking an agreement with frackers in March, agreeing on voluntary environmental standards for fracking (instead of pushing for a ban) and jointly establishing the Center for Sustainable Shale Development. With the release of Monday’s paper, howls of anger only grew louder.
Greenpeace USA Executive Director Phil Radford slammed the new study in an opinion piece published by EcoWatch:
[T]he Center for Energy and Environmental Resources released a study funded by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the natural gas industry that stated two things: that the sample size it looked at is “not sufficient” to fully understand the methane pollution from fracking, and that the rates of methane pollution from this sample size are nonetheless 10 to 20 times lower than those calculated from more complete measurements in other peer reviewed studies. This discrepancy may be attributable to the fact that industry chose the locations and times of the wells that were studied.
At best this study will be considered an interesting outlier that calls for further research. At worst, it will be used as PR by the natural gas industry to promote their pollution. …
There’s been even more controversy on the people behind this study. Among others, Steve Horn at De-Smog Blog has long been skeptical of EDF’s position in the industry studies, and he has a studious critique of this study’s funding.
There will be more controversy to come. This study is just the beginning of EDF’s research on the topic. From NPR:
Steve Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, says his organization is funding 16 studies to look at the entire natural gas system in the United States. The PNAS study, focusing only on production, is just one part of that.
“Regrettably, we need another year, and then we’ll have all of these pieces together and we really can get a much clearer picture of what’s going on,” Hamburg says.
At stake isn’t simply gas production in the United States. Natural gas is taking off globally. So Hamburg says these measurements offer producers and regulators an opportunity to fix what’s wrong in the U.S. and to spread those best practices around the world.
John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants: johnupton.
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