As Natural Gas Provides Environmental Benefits, Bill McKibben Scrambles to Defend Activists’ Stance

As activists prepare for their big climate march next week – and as Obama administration officials, Democratic candidates across the country, and climate and energy experts continue to tout natural gas for its immense environmental benefits – they are clearly scrambling to justify their anti-fracking stance.

This was on full display in an op ed published this week by well-known activist Bill McKibben, director of  Of course, the op ed rehashes activists’ tired talking point that methane leaks during natural gas development spell climate gloom and doom.  Not only that but he does this by invoking the thoroughly debunked research of Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea.

It’s time to consider McKibben’s claims followed by the facts.

Claim #1: “In a paper published in the journal Climate Change in May 2011, [Howarth and Ingraffea] concluded that somewhere between 3.6 percent and 7.9 percent of the methane from fracking wells was escaping into the atmosphere as its made its way from underground to end user. Which is a lot. More than enough, as we shall see, to make fracking worse for climate change than the coal it was replacing.”

FACT: Let’s just take a moment to look at the numerous research institutions that have destroyed Howarth and Ingraffea’s claims, starting with the world’s most prominent climate scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which, by the way, Bill McKibben has called the “gold standard” for years.  From the IPCC’s latest climate assessment:

“A key development since AR4 is the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply… this is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.” (p. 18)

The IPCC doesn’t stop there: it goes on to explain that natural gas is reducing GHG emissions even accounting for methane emissions from natural gas development.  As the IPCC explains, even “[t]aking into account revised estimates for fugitive emissions, recent lifecycle assessment indicate that specific GHG emission are reduced by one half” as more power plants are powered by natural gas.

The IPCC isn’t the only organization of experts to come to this conclusion.  International Energy Agency (IEA), the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have all credited hydraulic fracturing and the increased use of natural gas with reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a twenty year low.

Reports from MIT, the University of Maryland, multiple reports from the U.S. Department of Energy, Carnegie Mellon and even Cornell University have contradicted Howarth and Ingraffea’s research or found methane leakage rates that are far below what they have claimed.  University of Chicago climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert, physics professor at Berkeley Richard Muller, and earth and atmospheric sciences professor at Cornell Louis Derry have publicly criticized Ingraffea’s work.  McKibben actually quotes Michael Levi from the Center for Foreign Relations but, of course, leaves out the part about how Levi has been highly critical of Ingraffea’s claims even asking rhetorically about his work: “Is there value in debating people who don’t want to think?”

The truth is, as EID’s new infographic shows, methane emissions have been dramatically reduced even as natural gas production has soared to levels no one would have imagined even a few years ago.

Claim #2: “In April, Howarth published a review of all the data sets so far, and they showed that his original numbers were pretty likely correct: up to 5 percent of the methane probably leaks out before the gas is finally burned.”

FACT: In this study, Howarth, Ingraffea and their fellow researchers took measurements of methane from flyovers in southwestern Pennsylvania and claimed to find emissions from seven well pads that were “2 to 3 orders of magnitude greater than US Environmental Protection Agency estimates.”

Keep in mind that there are over 800 wells in this area; however the researchers admitted that they detected little to no emissions from any of those, save those seven particular well pads.  So why was there more methane around those seven wells?  After digging a little deeper, it turns out that those seven wells also happen to be located in the largest coal producing region in the state.  State laws dictate that coal mines incorporate systems to vent the methane to prevent explosion and protect workers. The researchers did admit the presence of these coal mines, but the discussion was largely in supplemental information rather than considered as an important factor within the study.

Dr. Louis Derry, a geologist at Cornell University also looked into that data and explained that “There are other routes for coal gas to escape, including fractures or undocumented structures from legacy mines and abandoned wells.”

Claim #3: “[F]ar from being a bridge, the big investments in natural gas may actually be a breakwater that keeps this new wave of truly clean energy from washing onto our shores.”

FACT: Not even the renewable energy industry agrees with McKibben here.  As Rhone Resch, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association explained recently, “Natural gas and renewables complement each other very nicely.”  Director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Adnan Amim told Bloomberg, “‘Shale gas at low cost can help to create a hybrid system,’ whereby more gas-fired power is fed to the grid…and augmented by wind and solar.”

The Energy Information Institute just released data finding that natural gas, solar and wind led power plant additions in the first half of 2014.

Texas, which happens to be one of the top natural gas producing states, is also leading the United States in wind energy production.  As a report by the Texas Clean Energy Coalition found, natural gas and renewables “are complementary, not competing, resources.”

Berkeley professor Richard Muller put it well a report detailing why environmentalist should embrace natural gas:

“Yet cheap natural gas can also make it easier for solar and wind energy to further penetrate electricity markets by providing the rapid back-up that those intermittent sources require. In addition, natural gas is the only base load fuel that can be downscaled into microgrids and distributed generation networks to provide that same flexibility and reliability for solar energy on rooftops and in buildings, expanding the market for urban solar systems. Particularly for areas focusing on distributed generation, natural gas can be an enabler of wind and solar.”

Claim #4: “It’s time to stop searching for a bridge and simply take the leap.”

FACT: Here McKibben want us to take “take the leap” away from our new found energy security, millions of jobs, economic growth, billions in tax revenues, major reductions in air pollution, and a 20 year low in GHG emissions. No wonder they’re scrambling.

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