Methane Report from EPA Further Splits Fracking Camps
29 April 2013
By Kevin Begos / Associated Press
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has dramatically
lowered its estimate of how much of a potent heat-trapping gas
leaks during natural gas production, in a shift with major
implications for a debate that has divided environmentalists: Does
the recent boom in fracking help or hurt the fight against climate
Oil and gas drilling companies had pushed for the change, but
there have been differing scientific estimates of the amount of
methane that leaks from wells, pipelines and other facilities
during production and delivery. Methane is the main component of
The new EPA assessment is "kind of an earthquake" in the debate
over drilling, said Michael Shellenberger, the president of the
Breakthrough Institute, an environmental group based in Oakland,
Calif. "This is great news for anybody concerned about the climate
and strong proof that existing technologies can be deployed to
reduce methane leaks."
The scope of the EPA's revision was vast. In a mid-April report on
greenhouse emissions, the agency now says that tighter pollution
controls instituted by the industry resulted in an average annual
decrease of 41.6 million metric tons of methane emissions from
1990 through 2010, or more than 850 million metric tons overall.
That's about a 20 percent reduction from previous estimates. The
agency converts the methane emissions into their equivalent in
carbon dioxide, following standard scientific practice.
The EPA revisions came even though natural gas production has
grown by nearly 40 percent since 1990. The industry has boomed in
recent years, thanks to a stunning expansion of drilling in
previously untapped areas because of the use of hydraulic
fracturing, or fracking, which injects sand, water and chemicals
to break apart rock and free the gas inside.
Experts on both sides of the debate say the leaks can be
controlled by fixes such as better gaskets, maintenance and
monitoring. Such fixes are also thought to be cost-effective,
since the industry ends up with more product to sell.
"That is money going up into the air," said Roger Pielke Jr., a
professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado,
adding that he isn't surprised the EPA's new data show more
widespread use of pollution control equipment. Mr. Pielke noted
that the success of the pollution controls also means that the
industry "probably can go further" in reducing leaks.
Representatives of the oil and gas industry said the EPA revisions
show emissions from the fracking boom can be managed.
"The methane 'leak' claim just got a lot more difficult for
opponents" of natural gas, noted Steve Everley, with Energy In
Depth, an industry-funded group.
In a separate blog post, Mr. Everley predicted future reductions,
"As technologies continue to improve, it's hard to imagine those
methane numbers going anywhere but down as we eagerly await the
next installment of this EPA report," Mr. Everley wrote.
One leading environmentalist argued the EPA revisions don't change
the bigger picture.
"We need a dramatic shift off carbon-based fuel: coal, oil and
also gas," Bill McKibbern, the founder of 350.org, wrote in an
email to The Associated Press. "Natural gas provides at best a
kind of fad diet, where a dangerously overweight patient loses a
few pounds and then their weight stabilizes; instead, we need at
this point a crash diet, difficult to do" but needed to limit the
damage from climate change.
The EPA said it made the changes based on expert reviews and new
data from several sources, including a report funded by the oil
and gas industry. But the estimates aren't based on independent
field tests of actual emissions, and some scientists said that's a
Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor of ecology who led
a 2011 methane leak study that is widely cited by critics of
fracking, wrote in an email that "time will tell where the truth
lies in all this, but I think EPA is wrong."
Mr. Howarth said other federal climate scientists from the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have published
recent studies documenting massive methane leaks from natural gas
operations in Colorado and other Western states.
Mr. Howarth wrote that the EPA seems "to be ignoring the published
NOAA data in their latest efforts, and the bias on industry only
pushing estimates downward -- never up -- is quite real. EPA badly
needs a counteracting force, such as outside independent review of
The issue of methane leaks has caused a major split between
Since power plants that burn natural gas emit about half the
amount of the greenhouse gases as coal-fired power, some say that
the gas drilling boom has helped the U.S. become the only major
industrialized country to significantly reduce greenhouse
emissions. But others believe the methane leaks negate any
benefits over coal, since methane is a highly potent greenhouse
The new EPA figures still show natural gas operations as the
leading source of methane emissions in the U.S., at about 145
million metric tons in 2011. The next biggest source was enteric
fermentation, scientific jargon for belches from cows and other
animals, at 137 million metric tons. Landfills were the
third-biggest source, at 103 million metric tons.
But the EPA estimates that all the sources of methane combined
still account for only 9 percent of greenhouse gases, even taking
into account methane's more potent heat-trapping.
The EPA said it is still seeking more data and feedback on the
issue of methane leaks, so the report may change again in the
The EPA revisions have international implications, too. The agency
says the new report, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions
and Sinks, was submitted to the U.N. Framework Convention on
Climate Change by an April 15 deadline.