Climate Central Report Highlights Decline in Methane Emissions

This week, a climate research organization, Climate Central, released a report, “Natural Gas and Climate Change” which comes to a somewhat obvious conclusion: we need more data on methane emissions. But if hydraulic fracturing opponents were hoping for a report that would support their dubious claim that methane emissions from natural gas are “massive,” they will be sorely disappointed. Indeed, the report mostly kept activist advocacy at an arm’s length and focused on real-world facts.  As the report states:

“The EPA’s 2012 annual greenhouse gas emissions inventory estimate [of methane leakage] was 2.2 percent. Its 2013 inventory estimate made a large adjustment that reduced the estimate to 1.5 percent. The degree of methane leakage is uncertain, but it is likely to be reduced in the future since it also represents lost profits for gas companies.” (emphasis added)

So, even Climate Central is acknowledging that methane emissions are on a downward trajectory. (To be fair, Climate Central also mentions other studies on methane “leaks,” many of which have been thoroughly debunked.) The key thrust of its report, however, is to evaluate whether or not the use of natural gas would provide a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions sufficient to meet particular targets. From the report:

“The EPA recently estimated methane leaks in the natural gas system at 1.5 percent.   A 1.5 percent leak rate would achieve an immediate 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, at the individual power plant level.  However, EPA’s estimate contains significant uncertainly, and like all estimates available in the peer-reviewed literature, lacks sufficient real-world measurements to guide decision-making at the national level.  Climate Central found that the ongoing shift from coal to gas in power generation in the U.S. is unlikely to provide the 50 percent reduction in GHG emissions typically attributed to it over the next three to four decades, unless gas leakage is maintained at the lowest estimated rates (1 to 1.5 percent) and the coal replacement rate is maintained at recent high levels (greater than 5 percent per year).” (emphasis added)

So, Climate Central acknowledges EPA’s estimate of 1.5 percent, and that the leakage rate is “likely to be reduced in the future” as well – and yet they presume a lack of GHG benefit “unless” the leakage rate is maintained at or below the level they acknowledged. Sounds like things are already on track!

Yes, there are problems with EPA’s estimates, but the reality is that EPA’s emissions data are overestimates. The uncertainty is not whether the leakage rate is actually higher, but rather how much lower it is in practice.

EPA’s 1.5 percent estimate is actually far too high because it is based on assumptions that grossly misinterpret actual industry practice.  One of the biggest problems with EPA’s estimate is that it assumes companies that are not required to capture methane during well completions are simply venting that methane into the air. It also assumes that flaring, a process that burns off the methane before it is released, isn’t really happening unless the authorities explicitly mandate it.  Both of these assumptions are simply wrong, and they produce estimates that are by no means reflective of industry operations.

Interestingly, the American Gas Association also released a report today that evaluates EPA’s revisions to its methane estimates, observing that “the long-term trend for methane emissions from natural gas systems is downward.”  The report states that “absolute methane emissions have declined 10 percent [since 1990], even as production increased 32 percent. In 2007 emissions hit their all-time peak. Since then, emissions have fallen 14 percent as natural gas production climbed 15 percent.” It also points out that EPA air regulations coming down the pike (the ones justified by the agency’s own inflated emissions estimates) will require companies to capture methane at the wellhead by 2015, which the Climate Central report also mentions:

“Starting in 2015, all hydraulically fractured wells will be required to use ‘green completion’ technologies to capture the methane. The EPA estimates that methane leakage is reduced by 95 percent with a green completion compared with venting of the methane.”

Climate Central begins its report citing EPA’s greatly-reduced emissions estimates, then states that emissions will continue to decrease, and finally claims that forthcoming EPA regulations will reduce methane emissions by 95 percent beginning in 2015.

Regardless of how it hedges its claims amidst an aura of “uncertainty,” the Climate Central report acknowledges that, based on EPA data, methane emissions are going down, and will continue to do so.


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