Fossil Fuels New EDF fracking study criticized.

Published on September 19th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


EDF Burned By Its Own Fracking Study, Sez Gas Experts

September 19th, 2013 by  

Now, here’s a shocker. The Environmental Defense Fund has spearheaded an ambitious industry-funded series of studies on fugitive emissions from fracking and other natural gas life cycle operations, and the first study to be released looks just like…well, like what you’d expect from an industry-funded study. It was met with vociferous criticism from non-industry sources, including a statement from the organization Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE), which has taken issue with the small sample size and relatively ideal conditions of the emissions survey.

We’re not particularly qualified (to say the least) to comment on the methodological details of the EDF fracking study, “Measurements of methane emissions at natural gas production sites in the United States,” which was just published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

However, if you take a look at the abstract, there’s a pretty big “if” in there that sticks out like a sore thumb. That’s squarely in the middle of our comfort zone, so let’s take a closer look.

The New EDF Fracking Study

A key part of PSE’s criticism of the fracking study involves the sample size and location of the gas facilities in the study. Given the wide range of conditions in gas fields throughout different regions of the US, you’d have to be very careful about site selection in order to extrapolate your findings from a relatively small sample to the entire US gas industry.

New EDF fracking study criticized.

Natural gas by stevendepolo.

To their credit, the study authors don’t make the mistake of assuming that their findings can be extrapolated willy-nilly across the country. Here’s the relevant excerpt from their abstract:

Overall, if emission factors from this work for completion flowbacks, equipment leaks, and pneumatic pumps and controllers are assumed to be representative of national populations and are used to estimate national emissions, total annual emissions from these source categories are calculated to be 957 Gg of methane (with sampling and measurement uncertainties estimated at ±200 Gg).

Right, and if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. The study makes no case that its findings could apply across the industry. To be fair, that argument is clearly beyond the scope of the study.

It’s also useful to note that the study was geared toward investigating whether or not new EPA regulations on wellhead emissions were effective. EDF concludes:

As we understand the scope of what’s happening across the natural gas system, we will be able to address it. We already know enough to get started reducing emissions, and thanks to the first study, we know that new EPA regulations to reduce wellhead emissions are effective. EPA got it right.

PSE’s argument here is that the facilities selected for the study were on their best behavior, so conditions there are not reflective of typical operations.

In the context of PSE’s issues, it may true that tighter regulations are effective at the particular sites included in the study, but what seems to be the problem here is that EDF took a modest study that reached a modest conclusion, and promoted it as if it could be applied to the entire natural gas industry.

Getting A Handle On Fugitive Emissions

PSE brought up some additional points about the methodology, as have a raft of other critics. Let’s just note for the record that while some studies indicate that fugitive emissions are a manageable problem, studies at other gas fields, including a recent NOAA study, have indicated that fugitive emissions form a critical issue that is not easily addressed by new regulations.

Aside from the methane emissions issue, let’s not forget a few other fracking-related issues that are giving rise to a regulatory mosh pit, including water contamination, local air quality and public health issues, fracking waste disposal issues including earthquakes, and impacts on nearby property values.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • exdent11

    Tina, This study should be good news but you treat it like you just drank sour milk.

    The study provides a pathway to responsible drilling , suggesting where improvement need to be made but over all gives confidence ,that with proper regulation and oversight, natural gas can help break our coal addiction while transitioning to renewables.

  • Bob_Wallace

    I’m having problems understanding how the EDF got “burned”.

    The EDF had a concern about natural gas extraction and did a study. They found that the problem was (apparently) not as great as had been feared.

    Or at least can be made less than what had been feared.

    Were I the EDF I’d be happy about the findings. They, at the very worst, show that it is possible to extract NG without losing large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. That may not be happening at all wells right now, but the excuse that “There’s no way to clean it up” will no longer be acceptable. If some can do it then we can require all to do it.

    If we can get methane leaks under control then we’re in a heck of a lot better shape than continuing to burn coal. NG, burned into electricity, produces about half as much CO2 as coal. If we simply replaced coal with NG we’d be 50% better off.

    If we use something like 50% wind, 30% solar and 20% NG as a coal replacement we eliminate 90% of our coal CO2 emissions.

    Party time!

  • Ivor O’Connor

    So the fox guarding the hens in the chicken coop find nothing wrong?

    • Bob_Wallace

      “The Environmental Defense Fund has spearheaded an ambitious industry-funded series of studies on fugitive emissions”

      Who’s the fox?

      Sounds to me as if the NG industry felt/knew that things weren’t as bad as some people were claiming so they gave some money to an organization that was not on their side and let them do some objective research.

      I’d bet that the industry had a very good idea as to how much methane was escaping. That’s money going up into the air for them.

      An excellent move, on both sides, seems to me.

      (You know that some people inside the EDF had to be beaten over the head with the numbers during extended sessions before they accepted that the numbers did not align with their previously held beliefs.)

      • ashermiller

        Here’s the danger here: They evaluated an incredibly small number of wells in an area that may not be indicative of the norm. And it’s being used to communicate that the methane problem is not that bad. EDF plans to study more areas, but in the meantime the narrative is (attempting) to be set: THAT is industry’s goal here.

        • Bob_Wallace

          I don’t see them trying to say that the wells they sampled should be taken as a proxy for all wells.

          What I see is the first of a series of studies. What needs to be done next is to repeat the study on an appropriate sized and located sample of all wells.

          If we can control leaks at the well, and if we do control leaks elsewhere in the distribution system, we can keep a lot of methane out of the atmosphere.

          Wind-electricity is cheaper than natural gas generated electricity. Solar will be cheaper soon. A combination of mostly wind and solar with some NG will allow us to close coal plants.

          That’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a great start.

          • ashermiller

            Fred Krupp, head of EDF: “We already know enough to get started reducing emissions, and thanks to
            the first study, we know that new EPA regulations to reduce wellhead
            emissions are effective. EPA got it right.”

          • Kudos

            One of the more objective, least antagonistic or derisive bits I’ve seen you write (that’s a good thing). Same for the post below. Please keep them coming.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Natural gas sucks.

            (Just needed to restore my reputation.)

  • Jouni Valkonen

    good to hear that methane leaks are not that significant problems. Note that in the pollution aspect only humans and agriculture is suffering. But humans can always move into cities and this way we can protect wild nature. Wilderness likes the most that we just leave nature alone. If rural property value is decreasing, then this is best way to protect nature.

    After all the real pests in this planet are the farmers!

    • blink

      do you get up in the morning trying to start controversy ? really, all conjecture and no sense whatsoever

      • Jouni Valkonen

        see above.

    • Matt

      “pollution only hurts humans and agriculture” WTF? What to you think the animals in nature drink and breath?

      • Jouni Valkonen

        It is the Chernobyl effect. See e.g. from Wikipedia:

        Recent studies suggest the 19-mile (30 km) “exclusion zone” surrounding the Chernobyl disaster has become a wildlife sanctuary. Animals have reclaimed the land including rare species such as lynx, Przewalski’s horses, wild boars and eagle owls whose populations are all thriving. When the disaster first occurred, many animals and plants died immediately; however, 25 years later, these animals and plants are reclaiming the abandoned cities to make it their habitat. Even the site of the explosion is flourishing with wildlife as birds nest in the wrecked nuclear plant, and plants and mushrooms live in and on the site.

        After initial devastating radiation fall, the levels quickly settled and Chernobyl become one of the foremost urban wildlife sanctuary. Same effect is likely to happen also with Fracking.

        I know that these things are hard to accept because people are usually blind for the total annihilation of nature what is caused by farmers.

        • Beige, paint it Beige

          I think you’re off the mark here a bit. Farmers, or more appropriately Huge Agribusiness Farm/Industrial Farming Methods are a blight to the earth, more so than Farmers practicing responsible time proven methods of land conservation and animal husbandry. To take it a step further, people (in general) need to look at themselves for causing this blight because of the cheap lazy chumps they are for wanting the cheapest, easiest, uniform, bland food there is and looking the other way as the crooks they elect to run the country take bribes from DOW, Monsanto, et all to line their pockets and pass industry poison protection legislation. Don’t try to pin this BS on farmers, pin it on foolish people who have allowed their connection with the land/earth to be severed.

    • Steeple

      If fugitive emissions of the sort being postulated by the doomsayers was correct, things would be blowing up left and right around wellheads.

      But you have to watch those Environmental Defense Fund types; they are so in the tank for the evil oil company/raper/pillagers community.

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