The first of sixteen planned papers exploring the issue of emissions from natural gas production was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and its findings could help allay fears of escaped methane contributing to climate change. The research was commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund and a handful of oil and gas companies, and was led and conducted by Dr. David T. Allen, Ph.D. and other researchers at the University of Texas. The study concluded that while EPA estimates of escaped methane from gas drilling are fairly accurate, the estimates by industry critics and those calculated from indirect leakage studies are much too high.
Concern about methane leakage from natural gas production surged following publication in 2011 of a widely-discussed paper authored by a Cornell research team led by Dr. Robert Howarth, Ph.D., titled “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations.” This paper suggested that the gas escaping from hydraulic fracturing operations made natural gas a bigger threat to the climate than coal.
However, the authors of the PNAS study found that emissions from completion phases are far lower than regulators had estimated, while the amount of gas escaping from pneumatic devices powered by the pressure of extracted gas was underestimated. The researchers propose that this knowledge could help regulators and industry devise methods to more effectively reduce emissions and understand more accurately the lifecycle greenhouse gas impacts of natural gas.
The study employed rigorous protocols developed to verify and preserve the independence of researchers involved, uphold transparency, and eliminate bias in selection of sites to be inspected. There has been criticism that the study was funded in large part by oil and gas companies that also provided the researchers access to drilling sites, but the Environmental Defense Fund also contributed significant funding to the study. Access to active gas production sites is the only way to make accurate measurements.
Further, challenging industry’s involvement is a simplistic but predictable attempt to call into question findings that are at odds with the anti-hydrocarbon movement’s position on natural gas and hydraulic fracturing. The fact is that industry stepped forward, worked constructively with an environmental group and academia, and sought to understand the environmental impacts of its operations. The industry and EDF deserve credit for their collaboration. If any criticism needs to be leveled, it should be against those organizations that attacked this collaboration from the sidelines of the debate.