PA-DEP Attempted To Suppress Controversial Study That Criticized
National Public Radio
27 August 2013
By Marie Cusick
A state report outlining how climate change will impact
Pennsylvania is currently a year and a half late – and there’s
still no indication of when it will be released publicly.
The Department of Environmental Protection missed its
legally-mandated deadline to publish the report in the spring of
Today at a meeting of the DEP’s Climate Change Advisory Committee,
the department said the report is still going through the review
However StateImpact Pennsylvania has obtained a copy of the
original draft climate report and internal DEP emails, which
reveal an attempt by its Policy Office to suppress controversial
research that questions the benefits of natural gas.
Methane study stirs debate
The DEP’s Policy Office wanted a team of Penn State scientists
who authored the climate report to remove all references to a 2011
study from Cornell University.
The peer reviewed paper, by professor Robert Howarth, has been the
subject of intense debate. It concludes that from a climate change
perspective, natural gas is dirtier than coal.
Although natural gas is much cleaner-burning than coal when it
comes to carbon dioxide emissions, methane can leak throughout the
gas production process.
Methane is the primary component of natural gas, and it’s 20 times
more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas (although it
remains in the atmosphere for a much shorter time period).
Howarth believes this methane leakage negates any climate change
benefits derived from burning natural gas.
His work has has been criticized by the oil and gas industry and
challenged by other scientists including his colleagues at
Missing climate report
Despite this debate, the Penn State scientists believed
Howarth’s study was worth mentioning as part of the ongoing
scientific discussion about methane emissions.
They also cited three other studies that challenged his
Here’s part of their original climate change draft report, which
was submitted to the DEP in February 2012:
Under scenarios where large amounts of methane are vented,
or fugitive methane emissions from the gas transportation system
are high, the life-cycle climate impacts of natural gas power
generation may be on par with coal-fired power generation
(Howarth, et al., 2011). This conclusion also rests on
assumptions regarding the timing of climate impacts over which
there is additional uncertainty. Three other studies (Jiang et
al., 2011: NETL, 2011: Cathles, 2011) question the assumptions
The report’s lead author, Penn State professor James Shortle,
declined to comment for this story.
One of the report’s co-authors Seth Blumsack, an associate
professor at Penn State, says he viewed his job as simply laying
out the scientific debate to the public.
“My role in this was to provide information on the current state
of the science, including areas where there is some disagreement,”
he told StateImpact Pennsylvania.
Emails show effort to suppress study
A few months ago, DEP’s Climate Change Program Manager quit his
job out of frustration.
Joe Sherrick was charged with overseeing the process of producing
the report for the agency. He did not comment for this story but
has previously told StateImpact Pennsylvania there was a “lack of
support” from the Corbett administration and the DEP for anything
related to climate change.
A few months after the Penn State team submitted its original
draft, the DEP Policy Office directed Sherrick to take Howarth’s
work out of the report.
Sherrick relayed the message to the Penn State team in a May 21,
“Our Policy Office is rather firm that on Page 100 of the report
they want no reference to Professor Howarth,” he wrote to Shortle.
A few weeks later DEP policy specialist Jessica Shirley pressed
the point again to Sherrick in an email.
“Please ensure that all references to Howarth are removed,” she
The Penn State team responded to the DEP the same day.
“This is kind of tough ground for me because I believe our job is
to provide you with the relevant science,” Shortle wrote to
Sherrick, ”It raises ethical issues to be asked to remove peer
reviewed work if we believe providing it is appropriate. I know
you know that.”
Sherrick agreed with the Penn State scientists and appealed to the
Policy Office a few days later.
“This section [of the report] does nothing more than cover the
differences of opinion among current researchers and study” he
wrote to Shirley in an email, “It does not advocate right or wrong
but instead shows where the preponderance of researchers are on
the topic. I don’t believe it should be withheld…”
Drafts of the climate report and internal DEP emails were obtained
by the environmental group, PennFuture through an open records
request and shared with StateImpact Pennsylvania.
“I didn’t want anything controversial”
Jessica Shirley, the DEP policy specialist who asked for the study
to be removed, says it was her own judgement call, and she was not
pressured by anyone above her.
“We ended up not taking it out,” she tells StateImpact, “[Howarth]
will be in the final assessment report.”
Shirely says the reference will remain to show the current debate.
Although she has no formal scientific background, she says she
still doesn’t believe the study is accurate.
“At the time, we were really trying to refute it,” Shirley says,
“It was so controversial. I didn’t want anything controversial in
She doesn’t know when the report will be published.
For his part, Howarth is pleased to hear his study will still be
mentioned in the final report, but is disturbed by the attempt to
“It’s really horrifying,” he says, “I’m not surprised that there’s
political pressure to interfere with the scientific process, but I
think that’s really damaging to society in the long term. You need
to have agencies put forward the best information they can.”
Scientists say more data is needed
The back and forth over the Howarth study lead the Penn State
team to add a new section to the report describing the
uncertainties around how natural gas will impact the climate.
Here’s a portion of the new section:
Life-cycle comparisons of greenhouse-gas emissions from the
natural gas sector are subject to uncertainties due primarily to
lack of data, but also due to other modelling assumptions …
Howarth et al. (2011) assume high levels of [methane] and
fugitive emissions; these estimates are viewed as
unrealistically aggressive by other studies (Jiang et al., 2011;
NETL, 2011; Cathles, 2011). Direct measurement of [methane]
venting and fugitive emissions is rare and expensive. The recent
study described by Tolleson (2012) based on measurement of a gas
field in Colorado, finds that methane releases to the atmosphere
are more in line with Howarth, et al. (2011) than with other
While the Colorado study represents only a single data point, it
is suggestive of the high degree of uncertainty that exists in
current estimates of direct methane releases from natural gas
After seeing the new section, Sherrick emailed the Penn State team
to say he thought it was a “good discussion.”
“I suspect it will not be well received within our policy office,
but please incorporate and format this into the final version,” he
wrote, “I’ll deal with our policy office.”
Other scientists agree more data is needed.
Colm Sweeney studies greenhouse gas emissions for the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder,
He and a team of scientists recently took measurements with an
airplane over a gas field in Utah and found on one day the gas
field leaked 6 to 12 percent of the methane produced (which is on
the higher end of Howarth’s leakage rates).
Sweeney stresses that this only represents one gas field and and
one day of data.
“We need a lot more measurements to say methane leakage is a
national problem,” he says.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently slashed its
estimates of how much methane is being emitted by oil and gas
production, citing tighter controls by the industry.
However the EPA’s own internal watchdog issued a report earlier
this year saying the agency needs to get better data to track air
emissions from oil and natural gas operations.