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.
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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