New MIT Study Reinforces Environmental Effectiveness of Natural Gas Development

This week, yet another study was released underscoring the environmental effectiveness of onshore natural gas production specific to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). While some detractors of safe, tightly-regulated American natural gas development continue to lodge unfounded claims about this process — based on shoddy, widely panned data — the facts continue to speak for themself. This study builds upon those from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis (JISEA), URS Corp. and The LEVON Group, as well as one from Cornell University.

Authored by researchers at MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, the new study – available here – determines, among other things, that “the production of shale gas and specifically, the associated hydraulic fracturing operations have not materially altered the total GHG emissions from the natural gas sector” and that “emissions from shale gas production to be strikingly lower than previous estimates.” The authors also importantly note that “For the vast majority of contemporary shale gas wells, the revenues gained from using reduced emissions completions to capture the gas produced during a typical flowback cover the cost of executing such completions.” More on that below.

Here are key excerpts from the MIT press release:

  • “The production of shale gas has not significantly increased total emissions from the sector,” says Francis O’Sullivan, a researcher at MIT’s Energy Initiative and the lead author of the study released this week in Environmental Research Letters.
  • Sergey Paltsev, the study’s co-author and the assistant director for economic research at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, says companies also have an economic reason for wanting to capture this “fugitive” gas. “When companies vent and flare methane they are losing gas that they could have captured and sold” Paltsev says. “When we compared the cost of installing the right equipment to capture this gas to the loss in revenue if it isn’t captured, we found that the majority of shale wells make money by capturing the potential ‘fugitive’ emissions.”
  • In talking with industry representatives and officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), O’Sullivan and Paltsev found that companies are already capturing about 70 percent of potential “fugitive” emissions. In factoring that into their analysis, the researchers find emissions from shale gas production to be strikingly lower than previous estimates of potential emissions.
  • [Robert Howarth’s] study garnered much attention because it claimed the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas was larger than that of conventional gas, oil, and, over a 20-year time frame, coal. That study, however, used very limited well datasets. … In studying potential emissions, Howarth found 252 Mg of methane emissions per well in the Barnett site and 4,638 Mg per well in the Haynesville site. The MIT researchers, using their comprehensive well dataset, found that the potential emissions per well in the Barnett and Haynesville sites were in fact 273 Mg and 1,177 Mg, respectively. When accounting for actual gas handling field practices, these emissions estimates were reduced to about 35 Mg per well of methane from an average Barnett well and 151 Mg from an average Haynesville well.
  • According to Adam Brandt, an assistant professor at Stanford University, … “Previous studies used much smaller and more uncertain datasets, while O’Sullivan and Paltsev have gathered a much larger and more comprehensive industry dataset. This significantly reduces the uncertainty associated with potential emissions from shale gas development.”

A main tenet of our Guiding Principles is our industry’s commitment to “implement state-of-the-art environmental protection across our operations.” And as the Philadelphia Inquirer reports earlier this week, our region’s “Natural gas producers turn to ‘green completion’” technologies to ensure we’re protecting our environment, especially as it relates to further minimizing all methane emissions. This from the story:

  • Natural gas producers are turning to new techniques to capture the gas emitted during the well-completion process. In the past, a well’s initial production was typically vented or burned off to allow impurities to clear before the well was tied into a pipeline. Now, more operators are employing reduced-emission completions – a “green completion” – a process in which impurities such as sand, drilling debris, and fluids from hydraulic fracturing are filtered out and the gas is sold, not wasted.
  • The five gas wells that EQT Corp. completed last month at this remote site in Greene County’s Washington Township are typical. Compared to a gas flare, which roars like a jet engine and licks the sky with flame like a giant welder’s torch, green completion is dull and quiet. EQT is not the only drilling company that has embraced green completions. The equipment for separating the gas from the “flowback” has been perfected over the last decade and in the next three years, using it will become standard practice across the nation. … The advent of green completions is an example of the rapid development of shale-gas technology, which has revived a flagging domestic energy sector in just a few years.

Straightforward, fact-based studies like these to play an important role in the broader dialogue regarding the safe development of clean-burning natural gas. And without question, responsible Marcellus Shale natural gas development continues to positively impact our economy and our environment while Powering an American Renaissance.