EDF Emissions Study: Howarth v. Ingraffea

Is science a method toward improved understanding or merely a means toward an activist end?

Last month, researchers from the University of Texas – in coordination with the Environmental Defense Fund and participants from industry – released a bombshell study on methane emissions from natural gas production. The findings suggested a leakage rate in line with EPA’s estimate, or roughly 1.5 percent. The study was widely acknowledged as good news, which is also why activist opponents of shale immediately tried to marginalize it with their typical talking points.

One of those activists was Tony Ingraffea, the Cornell professor who co-authored an infamous 2011 study on the same topic that used many unwarranted assumptions in order to arrive at a high methane leakage rate for shale gas development. Indeed, the assumptions were so bad they seemed consciously misleading.  Ingraffea’s response to the EDF study (which he blasted out to the press a few minutes before the embargo was lifted on the study) was a cornucopia of misleading theories, scripted talking points, and outright science denial.

Interestingly, that arm-flailing response put Ingraffea at odds with another prominent academic: Robert Howarth, who co-authored the 2011 Cornell study with Ingraffea. Howarth labeled the UT study’s findings as “good news,” and even said the researchers did a “fine job” of studying emissions. Although he was by no means completely sold on a low emissions profile, Howarth even admitted that if emissions were kept below a certain point, his concern about shale would be tempered.

Let’s take a look at how these two Cornell professors responded to the study, in their own words:

HOWARTH: “Their conclusion is that upstream emissions are low, 0.42% of natural gas production (lower than we estimated for shale gas back in our April 2011 paper, and towards the low end of what we estimated for conventional natural gas). This is good news.” (9/11/2013)

  • INGRAFFEA: “People have been waiting for this paper for a long time, and unfortunately, it’s a disappointment.” (9/16/2013)

HOWARTH: “I believe Allen et al. have done a fine job of characterizing emissions in the sites they have studied.” (9/11/2013)

  • INGRAFFEA: “The new gas industry/Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) study released Monday on methane gas leakage appears to be fatally flawed.” (9/17/2013)

HOWARTH: “[T]he gas industry can produce gas with relatively low emissions” (9/11/2013)

  • INGRAFFEA: “EDF and industry cannot say, as they are now boasting, that new technologies have led to reduced emissions” (10/14/2013)

HOWARTH: “This new study by Allen and colleagues suggests that with sufficient motivation and scrutiny, shale gas may be marginally preferable to other fossil fuels over the coming decades…” (9/11/2013)

  • INGRAFFEA: “A confirmation of high rates of fugitive methane losses as is concluded in all of the field-level studies to date (again, these were omitted from the Allen et al. paper) would discredit the ‘clean natural gas’ narrative.” (9/17/2013)

HOWARTH: “I welcome these new data on how the oil and gas industry can keep methane emissions relatively low – when motivated and closely observed” (9/11/2013)

  • INGRAFFEA: “Given the politically charged environment around unconventional natural gas development, we must question whether this study is simply an attempt to manipulate science and reverse the political discussions of fugitive methane emissions.” (9/17/2013)

HOWARTH: “I would be much less worried about developing shale gas” if leakage could “reliably” be brought under one percent. “I’m a scientist. I really am.” (10/4/2013)

  • INGRAFFEA: “Because of leaks of methane, the main component of natural gas, the gas extracted from shale deposits is not a ‘bridge’ to a renewable energy future — it’s a gangplank to more warming and away from clean energy investments.” (7/28/2013)

It is worth noting that Howarth is still by no means a booster for shale gas, but we have to give credit to his willingness to accept and grapple with new evidence.  This stance contrasts sharply with Ingraffea, who unfortunately chose to summarily dismiss the findings with heated language because it is contrary to his anti-shale gas agenda.

Many in the media have characterized shale gas as “dividing” the environmental community, with many embracing its environmental benefits, while others still cite bogus methane leakage rates from the 2011 Cornell study. But with the most recent data now even dividing the authors of that Cornell report, it appears the gap between hard science and anti-fracking activism has only widened.

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