The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may have come close to being right in their recent revision of their earlier estimate of methane being released into the atmosphere, but then maybe not too. In fact, significant aspects of gas industry production was omitted from the reporting in addition to the report’s questionable reliability.
Among the reports heralded as exonerating the industry was the widely published Associated Press (AP) report available in the Washington Post, which provided a balanced perspective on the views of opposing camps in the debate. On the one side, Steve Everley, with Energy In Depth (EID), one of the most notoriously unreliable sources of industry funded information (read misinformation), said, “The methane ‘leak’ claim just got a lot more difficult for opponents”—no doubt with a cheer in his voice.
Going straight to the source, the EPA report itself, and ignoring the AP report—and EID’s subsequent gloating over it and ad hominem attack on Cornell professor Bob Howarth—is very revealing. The AP report missed significant aspects of the report that the industry is using as a red herring to distract attention form just how large a contributor to greenhouse gasses (GHG) the gas industry is.
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the EPA report was the section describing the methodology stated, “Emissions of GHGs from various source and sink categories have been estimated using methodologies that are consistent with the Revised 1996 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.” In addition to the fact that the EPA relied to a significant extent on data provided by the industry, but more damaging to the report’s credibility still was the statement on methodology in the agency’s 1997 report on methane emissions that “A group of industry experts was also used to review the data and approach for estimating emissions, so that any additional biases could be identified and eliminated.” The word oxymoron comes to mind with that statement. It’s like trusting the fox to give an accounting of the chickens in the coop after letting it guard them overnight.
In an email, Bill McKibbern, founder of 350.org, seemed satisfied with the report, but pointed out that “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” to address the issue of climate change.
Whether McKibbern was referring to the fact that the report addressed only the methane released without the context of the CO2 emissions it releases into the atmosphere is not clear from the reports. The fact of the matter is that, while it releases only 48% as much CO2 as coal, any measure of the greenhouse gasses related to natural gas has to include CO2.
Subsequent to the many other reports and commentary that followed the release of the EPA, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) perspective on the EPA report found that the report had not accounted for the extent of the findings of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study.
In a followup query on the extent of the EPA study’s scope, Cynics and Charlatans discovered other “facts” not reported on in the media, as well as a significant omission from the measure of the “inventory” of methane released into the atmosphere by the industry—capped and abandoned wells, neither of which was included in the study.
A comparison of the methane sources revealed:
CH4 emissions from coal mining were 63.2 Tg CO 2 Eq., a 9.2 Tg CO 2 Eq. ( 12.6 percent) decrease under 2010 emission levels.
Natural gas systems were the largest anthropogenic source category of CH 4 emissions in the United States in 2011 with 144.7 Tg CO 2 Eq. of CH 4 emitted into the atmosphere. Those emissions have decreased by 16.5 Tg CO 2 Eq. ( 10.2 percent) since 1990. The decrease in CH 4 emissions is due largely to a decrease in emissions from transmission and storage due to increased voluntary reductions and a decrease in distribution emissions due to a decrease in cast iron and unprotected steel pipelines. Emissions from field production accounted for approximately 37 percent of CH 4 emissions from natural gas systems in 2011.
In other words, methane emitted into the atmosphere by coal is less than 44 percent of the emissions by natural gas production and distribution.
While the EPA report addressed methane emissions from producing wells, it is important to remember that 30 to 50 percent of the wells leak over a period of 30 years. Assuming that only 30 percent of the old capped and abandoned wells leak, the estimate that there are a “minimum 2.5 million abandoned oil and gas wells littering the U.S. and an estimated 20-30 million globally,” there may be as many as 750,000 wells in the US alone that are releasing methane into the atmosphere.
Taking an accurate inventory of the number of such wells, let alone a measurement of the gas being released by these abandoned and capped wells, would be a colossal undertaking. It seems a safe and reasonable assumption that most would be leaking at a slow rate, but assuming that they all are releasing only trace amounts of methane would be a step too far.
National Public Radio’s series, Perilous Pathways, produced a series of reports, including one on methane migration into homes due to new activity near abandoned wells, and a methane geyser that spewed methane into the atmosphere for an untold number of days before it was again sealed, which was also reported in this blog.
The bottom line is that the EPA report did not write the bottom line on methane released into the atmosphere, let alone provide any assurance that natural gas production produces less GHG than coal, so wipe that smirk off your face EID. Your talking point is just so much more obnoxious gas being released into the atmosphere.