EPA data makes life complicated for anti-fracking activists

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Revised data from the Environmental Protection Agency now shows that methane emissions released by natural gas drilling are substantially lower than previously estimated, which undercuts claims made environmental groups that methane leaked during drilling accelerates global warming.

“We need a dramatic shift off carbon-based fuel: coal, oil and also gas,” Bill McKibbern, founder of the environmental group, 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.”

“New data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may not answer all of those questions in a comprehensive fashion, but they do strongly suggest that activists’ arguments about ‘the methane problem’ for natural gas development are without merit,” according to Energy in Depth.

“They also suggest that methane emissions aren’t increasing it all. They’re decreasing, actually — even as more wells and greater production come online,” the industry-funded group added.

The EPA said that tighter pollution controls by the gas industry has allowed methane emissions to decrease substantially between 1990 and 2010 — by about 41.6 million metric tons per year on average for a total of more than 850 million metric tons overall.

The revised methane estimate is about 20 percent lower than what the EPA reported last year. The reductions in methane emissions between 1990 and 2010 occurred as natural gas production has grown by 40 percent. The industry has boomed in recent years due to new advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

The EPA revised its previous estimates “based on expert reviews and new data from several sources, including a report funded by the oil and gas industry,” but not on “independent field tests of actual emissions,” according to the AP.

Cornell ecology professor Robert Howarth wrote in an email to the AP that “time will tell where the truth lies in all this, but I think EPA is wrong” and 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 counter-acting force, such as outside independent review of their process.”

Howarth was behind a 2011 study on methane leaks from drilling that is widely heralded by anti-fracking activists.

“The first is that EPA’s 2012 report attempted to argue that methane emissions had increased every single year from 1990 through 2009, with a slight decline in 2010,” according to Energy in Depth.

“But revised data issued in 2013 demonstrate precisely the opposite: in fact, there has been a significant and consistent decline in total methane emissions since 1990,” the group added.

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