California Regulator: Facts Don’t Matter on Fracking and Methane

It is generally acknowledged that one of the great success stories of the shale revolution has been a dramatic reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the United States.

Another great industry achievement is rarely noticed but no less remarkable: the sharp reduction in methane emission from oil and gas development, even as production has increased significantly (this graph tells the story).

You wouldn’t know of this, however, from listening to regulators at a recent event held by the Center for American Progress, an organization that has repeatedly promoted the anti-fracking Gasland movies.

But the most bizarre aspect of this event was when a California regulator claimed that the facts about methane emissions don’t matter when it comes to increasing regulations on the oil and gas industry.

According to an article about the event:

The United States cannot afford to wait until it understands the amount of methane escaping from oil and gas wells, pipelines and infrastructure before plugging those leaks, officials said Monday.

“We know enough to act,” Judi Greenwald, a deputy director for climate, environment and efficiency at the Energy Department, said during a panel discussion Monday. “There are uncertainties about methane emissions … but we know enough to take some action.”


Regulation shouldn’t wait until all the data is known, California Air Resources Board [CARB] chairman Mary Nichols suggested…“When you’ve got as much methane out there as we do, from so many and diverse sources,” it could take too long to do the detailed analysis that might normally accompany Clean Air Act regulation, she said. “It’s easier to control it than to fully characterize it.” (emphasis added)

In other words: the data don’t tell us what we want, but science is not important in crafting new, expensive regulations.

Of course, science does matter, and it points to good news on methane. Even though folks at the Energy Department, the Interior Department and CARB may want additional regulation, methane emissions have been declining due to voluntary industry efforts to capture fugitive methane at the well-head, often known as a “green completions.”

According to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, methane emissions are 16.9 percent lower than they were in 1990 and field production emissions are down more than 40 percent since 2006. The EPA admitted that this is “due to increased voluntary reductions” by industry. This is also a result of the industry consistently improving and enhancing its operations, including the adoption of innovative new technologies – all of which help the industry capture more methane.

Although some regulators think science is unimportant, it’s useful to review one of the most groundbreaking scientific studies on methane emissions to date.

In 2013, the Environmental Defense Fund partnered with the University of Texas to study methane emissions at nearly 200 natural gas well pads across the country. Their results were consistent with the EPA’s findings. The resulting study reported a methane leakage rate of 1.5 percent, low enough to insure that natural gas maintains its significant climate benefits.

A separate report, published in August of this year by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, did a “harmonization” of several recent studies on methane emissions to make an apples-to-apples comparison of all of the data. The researchers, led by an expert with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, found a range of emissions possibilities, but the median estimates confirmed that methane emissions do not approach a level that would negate the environmental benefits of natural gas.

Moreover, as the past few decades have shown with innovation and continuously improving technology, the only direction that methane emissions can go is down.

Rather than dreaming about new burdensome regulations – and pondering ways to downplay the importance of science – regulators should recognize that the steep reduction in both CO2 and methane emissions that have accompanied the shale revolution are an environmental success story.

As environmentalist and University of California, Berkeley physicist Richard Muller stated in a report entitled “Why Every Serious Environmentalist Should Favor Fracking”:

“[B]oth global warming and air pollution can be mitigated by the development and utilization of shale gas… Environmentalists who oppose the development of shale gas and fracking are making a tragic mistake.”

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy has been equally emphatic:

“Responsible development of natural gas is an important part of our work to curb climate change.”

This clear academic and regulatory understanding of the environmental benefits of shale production is great news to be celebrated, not a problem to be “fixed” by regulators who see science as a hurdle to be overcome in imposing new regulations.

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