“Groundbreaking Methane Emissions” Study Reconfirms Environmental Benefits, Safety of Shale Gas

Yesterday a study jointly conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and University of Texas at Austin was released focused on methane emissions associated with the safe, tightly-regulated development of shale gas. The comprehensive analysis – which relies on actual data rather than pure speculation – provided “good news”, as the study’s results are markedly better than the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) earlier assessments. These results, and previous studies, further underscore the fact that the responsible shale development is driven by continuous improvement, common sense regulations, and broadly utilize emissions-reducing technologies like green completions.

Here are key findings directly from the report:

  • The measurements indicate that well completion emissions are lower than previously estimated.
  • Estimates of total emissions are similar to the most recent EPA national inventory of methane emissions from natural gas production.
  • Emissions from pneumatic chemical injection pumps measured in this work averaged 3.7 ± 1.6 g of methane per minute per pump, 9% lower than the EPA emission factor.
  • If the average emissions reported in this work for well completion flowbacks, pneumatic devices, and equipment leaks are assumed to be representative of national populations and are applied to national counts of completions, pneumatic devices, and wells in EPA’s national inventory, emissions from these source categories would be calculated as 957 Gg (with sampling and measurement uncertainties estimated at ±200 Gg), compared with 1,211–1,250 Gg methane per year in the 2011 EPA national inventory (1) for the same source categories.
  • The majority of hydraulically fractured well completions that were sampled during the study had equipment in place that reduces potential methane emissions by 99%.

From EDF’s release:

  • “Methane emissions are lower than estimated by EPA for well completions”: Study results show that total emissions are in line with EPA estimates from the production of natural gas, yet the distribution of those emissions among activities differ. Methane emissions are lower than estimated by EPA for well completions and higher for valves and equipment used to control routine operations at the well site. …  According to Hamburg, UT’s low well emissions finding indicates an early phase-in of EPA’s New Source Performance Standards (NSPS), which requires all new fractured natural gas wells to either burn-off or use “green completions” (an emissions control method that routes excess gas to sales), is working. Results also suggest that these new regulations, which will be fully implemented in 2015, are having the desired effects. No … A key element of UT’s study, and the other EDF-industry collaborative studies, is the focus on ensuring their scientific integrity. …  An additional independent review is conducted by the scientific journal to which the study is submitted for publication — in this case, PNAS — a key step in all studies within this methane research series.

From UT-Austin’s release:

  • “Completion emissions are lower than previously estimated”: Measured emissions from completion flowbacks were much lower than previously estimated. During hydraulic fracturing, liquids that typically consist of water, sand and additives are injected at high pressure into low-permeability formations. After a well is fractured, it is cleared of sand and liquids that were injected into the well in a process called completion flowback. Two-thirds of the well completion flowbacks measured in the study either captured or combusted emissions, resulting in emissions measurements that were 99 percent lower than would have occurred in the absence of capture and combustion. The remaining one-third of completion flowbacks vented methane, but these were low-emitting wells, so in total, the emissions from completion flowbacks were 97 percent lower than current EPA estimates. “The net emissions for completion flowbacks is significantly lower than previous estimates, indicating the type of emission control activities observed during these events are very effective,” [David Allen, professor of chemical engineering at UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering and principal investigator for the study], said.

And here is what media outlets across the nation are reporting:

  • New Study “Undercuts Environmental Argument Against Fracking”: Drilling and fracking for natural gas don’t seem to spew immense amounts of the greenhouse gas methane into the air, as has been feared, a new study says. The findings bolster a big selling point for natural gas … and they undercut a major environmental argument against fracking. … The results, which generally agree with earlier EPA estimates, were published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. … Study authors said they controlled how the research was done and how the wells were chosen for study. And even Robert Howarth of Cornell University, one of the scientists who first raised the methane leak alarm, calls the results “good news.”  … Steve Hamburg, chief scientist at the market-oriented Environmental Defense Fund, noted that it presents “direct measures of things that everyone’s been hand-waving about before. These are hard numbers using the best scientific approach that we can.” … While methane concentrations in the atmosphere have been rising since 2007, federal scientists say they’ve found no sign that gas or oil drilling is contributing because the methane emissions come from a different part of the globe. … [National Academy of Sciences president Ralph] Cicerone said the authors represent “some of the very best experts around the country.” (Associated Press, 9/16/13)
  • “New Study Says Fracking Doesn’t Contribute to Global Warming”: A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science concludes that hydraulic fracturing…doesn’t appear to contribute significantly to global warming, as many environmental groups have warned. … The study concluded that the majority of hydraulically fractured natural-gas wells have surface equipment that reduces on-the-ground methane emissions by 99 percent, although it also found that elsewhere on fracking rigs, some valves do allow methane to escape at levels 30 percent higher than those set by EPA. (National Journal, 9/16/13)
  • “U.S. Overstates Leaks by Gas-Drillers, Says Study”: Natural-gas drilling sites aren’t leaking as much methane into the atmosphere as the federal government and critics of hydraulic fracturing had believed, according to the first study of emissions at multiple drilling sites. The study, led by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and published on Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is likely to ease some concerns about the impact of natural-gas extraction on the climate. Measuring emissions at 190 sites, the study found less “fugitive methane” than previous work by EPA and some university researchers, which relied on estimates. Methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas. (Wall Street Journal, 9/16/13)
  • Shale-Related Methane Emissions “Smaller Than Estimated”: Hydraulic fracturing appears to cause smaller leaks of the greenhouse gas methane than the federal government had estimated, and considerably smaller than some critics of shale gas had feared, according to a peer-reviewed study. … In particular, it indicated that containment measures captured 99 percent of methane that escaped from new wells being prepared for production, a process known as completion. …  “Previous studies that have gotten a lot of attention have had red flags jumping out all over them. This one didn’t,” said Michael A. Levi, the director of the program on energy security and climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations. Shell’s president, Marvin Odum, called the study “a prime example of key groups — that may not have the exact same interests — working collaboratively and taking a science-based approach” to the methane problem. (New York Times, 9/16/13)
  • “New Methane Study is Encouraging for Fracking Backers”: A nationwide study has made what may be a big first step in settling important questions over the gas boom’s impact on climate change, suggesting that natural gas wells probably don’t leak as much air pollution as previous worst-case estimates indicated. The findings, which were published Monday by the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, imply that the gas industry’s emissions may be low enough that the world could reduce its heat-trapping pollution in the atmosphere by burning more gas. … The results generally agree with earlier EPA estimates. … The impact on climate change is one of the major unresolved questions surrounding the rapid growth of hydraulic fracturing happening in shale formations like the Marcellus in Pennsylvania and worldwide. Several scientists said the new information is a big first step in dispelling those fears. (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 9/17/13)
  • EDF Study: Shale Development Emits “Less Methane Than EPA Says”: Natural gas drilling emits 10 percent less methane greenhouse gas than the U.S. EPA and fracking critics say, a study indicates. … The “green completions” technology, used by 67 percent of the wells studied, was able to “capture or control 99 percent of the potential emissions,” the study says. … The study’s 14 authors, led by university chemical engineering Professor David T. Allen, declared “no conflict of interest.” They said their research was independent and affirmed they controlled the study’s design, data collection and analysis. … Exxon Mobil said: “This groundbreaking survey — the most extensive ever conducted — adds important new evidence demonstrating that hydraulic fracturing does not compound climate change. This is an important step forward and a valuable contribution to our scientific understanding of this matter.” (UPI, 9/17/13)
  • Shale Technologies Make “Substantial Progress” for Limiting Emissions: A new study by the University of Texas at Austin shows that methane emissions from onshore natural gas drilling are much lower than previous estimates, in part because of the effectiveness of techniques required by the EPA for completing a well and bringing it into production. … The overall level of methane leakage from gas production was 0.42 percent of total volume, slightly less than the most recent EPA estimates of 0.47 percent. … “The industry has led efforts to reduce emissions of methane by developing new technologies and equipment, and these efforts are paying off,” said Howard Feldman of the American Petroleum Institute. … He said in a statement Monday that “the industry will continue to make substantial progress to reduce emissions voluntarily and in compliance with EPA’s recent emissions standards.” (Washington Post, 9/16/13)
  • New Study Confirms “Significantly Lower” Emissions Tied to Shale Production: A new study has concluded that the controversial natural gas development method known as fracking releases “significantly lower” emissions of the greenhouse gas methane thanks to pollution control equipment. The analysis from the University of Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund, which was supported by multiple oil-and-gas companies, found that leakage of the gas were 97 percent lower than 2011 estimates from the EPA. … “This study tackles one of the most hotly debated issues in environmental science and policy today,” said Mark Brownstein, an associate vice president with the Environmental Defense Fund. “It shows that when producers use practices to capture or control emissions, such as green completions, methane can be dramatically reduced.” (The Hill, 9/16/13)

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