New Industry-Sponsored Study on Fracking More Spin Than Science, Produces Findings Dramatically Out of Step With Other Recent Studies

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Kate Fried, 202-683-4905; kfried@fwwatch.org

New Industry-Sponsored Study on Fracking More Spin Than Science, Produces Findings Dramatically Out of Step With Other Recent Studies

Coalition Blasts Environmental Defense Fund For Conflicted Methane Study

WASHINGTON - In response to a new study on methane leakage from fracking wells, Americans Against Fracking released the following statement: 

“This industry-sponsored ‘study’ is more spin than science,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. “The Environmental Defense Fund is running interference for the industry, and the result will be more drilling and fracking around the world. The only responsible path forward is deploying renewables and increasing energy efficiency—not building another 30 years of infrastructure for the oil and gas industry.”

Background

EDF Study Conflicts

The study, led by researchers from the University of Texas and URS Corporation, Inc., is the first of five Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) studies aimed at estimating specific sources of methane emissions throughout the U.S. natural gas system. According to the authors of the study, “[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.” The authors reported “no conflicts of interest” but each of the sponsors clearly has a vested interest in improving the image of drilling and fracking for shale gas with respect to the impact it is having on our climate. The University of Texas is a major recipient of oil and gas industry money, and 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.” 

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.

Comparison to Independent Studies

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. 

EDF Study Findings

The researchers, David T. Allen et al., directly measured methane emissions from 150 well sites with a total 489 completed wells that were producing gas, from nine wells from which liquids were being pumped out to improve gas production (“liquids unloading”), and from four wells that had been producing, but that needed “reworking” (without additional fracking), to improve production.   But as the researchers note, only the sample of 150 well sites, with a total of 489 producing wells, is potentially large enough to justify making conclusions about the nationwide rate of leakage during the production stage. During this stage, the authors found that methane leakage was significantly higher than that estimated by EPA during this stage. 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).

In addition, by looking at methane emissions before the production stage, Allen et al. measured methane emissions from 27 wells during the “completion flowback” process, which clears the well of debris (mostly sand, or “proppant”) after drilling and fracking and before gas is produced for sale. They found much lower emissions than estimated by EPA in its most recent Greenhouse Gas Inventory, but 27 wells make for a very small sample, much too small to draw meaningful conclusions about national emissions. 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 just from that particular process.  Indeed, as Allen et al. 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.” Thus, the bias introduced by oil and gas companies expecting and preparing for EDF’s monitoring is not accounted for in the study.

Why Methane Matters

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, at least 25 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a 100-year timeframe, and at least 72 times as harmful as carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. While burning natural gas produces less carbon dioxide than does 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” for addressing climate change. 

More fracking means more climate change

Even assuming regulations could be established and enforced to minimize methane leakage to levels measured in this study, despite fierce opposition from industry, 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 six degrees Fahrenheit of additional warming. That’s assuming, unrealistically, that global coal emissions peak by 2020 and that lower natural gas prices around the globe don't hold back renewables and energy efficiency measures.

Americans Against Fracking is composed of the following groups: www.americansagainstfracking.org/members. For more information about Americans Against Fracking, visit www.AmericansAgainstFracking.org.

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Food & Water Watch is a nonprofit consumer organization that works to ensure clean water and safe food. We challenge the corporate control and abuse of our food and water resources by empowering people to take action and by transforming the public consciousness about what we eat and drink.

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