Debunked: Chesapeake Bay Fdn. “methane leak” video based on invalid analysis

Following an investigation by the Associated Press highlighting several high-profile examples of oil and gas opponents misrepresenting science as part of their campaign against hydraulic fracturing, a short new video released today by Energy In Depth (EID) confirms that a video and letter issued by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) late last year in which the group attacks natural gas development is, according to independent scientists, based on a complete misrepresentation of the facts.

Last November, CBF issued a press release and video file purporting to show large volumes of methane and other hydrocarbons escaping undetected from natural gas wellsites and compressor stations across Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia – methane CBF says was discovered through the use of infrared camera and confirmed as such by anti-shale activist Robert Howarth, also a professor at Cornell. But according to Dr. Ram Hashmonay, who is credited with co-inventing modern radial plume mapping technology, what Prof. Howarth asserts is leaking methane in the video is actually just heat and exhaust from combustion sources: the same stuff an infrared camera would pick up from the tailpipe of a car.

“It might have taken a couple months to compile this response, but it only took a couple seconds to figure out that what CBF was showing in that video had nothing to do with methane,” said Lee Fuller, EID’s executive director. “Unfortunately, it appears that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which otherwise has a pretty good reputation, may have been misled by Howarth, who has seen his own papers on natural gas and GHGs harshly criticized by government scientists, independent analysts, environmental groups, and even his own colleagues at Cornell.”

In the CBF video, Prof. Howarth is shown providing his analysis of FLIR camera footage gathered from 15 wellsites last summer by David Sawyer, a Mass.-based infrared videographer paid by CBF. To hear Howarth tell it, oil and gas operators choose to surreptitiously “vent” large volumes of methane (the same stuff they’re trying to sell) straight into the atmosphere because they’re fearful that alternate means of maintaining safe pressure, such as flaring, would “disturb people.” According to Howarth (0:30 of the video):

When the pressure gets too high, they have to let it go. And yeah, there it is. That’s a lot of [methane] gas flowing out of that one. They have the capability of flaring it, that is: burning it and turning it to carbon dioxide instead of just venting it like this. And from a global climate change perspective, that’s a lot better – because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas. But they don’t like to do it because it draws public attention; it makes a lot of noise, it disturbs people. So they like to just have this venting, which, as you can see, without your fancy FLIR camera, you wouldn’t know they were doing anything at all ther

But as Dr. Hashmonay explains, had the plumes in the CBF video actually been comprised of methane or other hydrocarbons, they would have remained intact and visible long after billowing from the source. Instead, the CBF plumes dissipate into the air almost immediately upon leaving the stack, a clear indication of an exhaust-product from a combustion source. According to Dr. Hashmonay: “I did not see clear clips here that show [anything] that indicates any substantial hydrocarbon leaving any of these sites. … They’re not indicative of any hydrocarbon leaks.”

As part of its research, EID traveled to Ithaca, N.Y. to shoot FLIR camera video of Cornell University’s power plant, a facility that emits plenty of heat, but, best we can tell, very little or no fugitive methane. As expected, the emissions seen coming from the Cornell facility in the EID video are strikingly similar to the ones that CBF presented in its video, which Howarth mistakenly asserts are composed of hydrocarbons. The EID video also includes infrared camera footage of a propane grill and cigarette lighter, which, when shot with FLIR, clearly demonstrate the difference between a plume of unburned hydrocarbons versus a plume of standard combustion exhaust, which is primarily composed of carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor.

For its part, a little more than a month after first releasing its video, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation re-wrote its original press release in response to a stream of negative comments. The purpose of the update, according to CBF, was to “make it clear that the [FLIR] images likely include methane and/or other hydrocarbon gases, and that some of the images could include diesel engine emissions” – as if that had been CBF’s position all along (or Howarth’s). In an article published earlier today in the Baltimore Sun, a CBF spokesman declined to “respond in detail” to Dr. Hashmonay’s analysis.

The revelation today of CBF’s erroneous methane video comes on the heels of an explosive Associated Press report late last month detailing several other cases in which professional opponents of oil and natural gas either misused or misrepresented science to advance political ends. In one case, Gasland director Josh Fox asserted that the occurrence of breast cancer in the Dallas/Fort Worth had risen as a result of shale development. In fact, cancer rates in the area have not risen — as confirmed by both the Texas Cancer Registry and the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Last year, EID guest bloggers Sue Mickley, a Yale-trained public health professional, and Uni Blake, a respected, N.Y.-based toxicologist, published a detailed health profile analysis focused on several of the most heavily drilled counties in North Texas. The pair found that health indicators in the study area actually improved over the past decade, even as the average age of the region’s population increased.


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