Appalachian Basin

*UPDATE* Expert on Ingraffea NYT Op-Ed: ‘Is There Value in Debating People Who Don’t Want To Think?’

UPDATE (8/2/2013; 9:09 AM ET): Two more experts have weighed in on Ingraffea’s flawed New York Times op-ed, both of whom had some harsh words for the Cornell professor’s activism-disguised-as-science. The first is Raymond Pierrehumbert, a climate scientist from the University of Chicago. Here are a couple of excerpts from his response (which you should read in its entirety):

“Ingraffea and co-workers systematically abuse the concept of ‘global warming potential’ in an effort to exaggerate the climate importance of methane leakage.”


“I’ve spent a certain amount of time around Ithaca, and I am well aware that there are a lot of people in the area that can’t abide the idea of fracking in any form. They are worried about industrialization of the rural landscape, heavy machinery disturbing once-quiet neighborhoods, and air pollution. Above all, they are worried about the safety of their drinking water supply. These are all legitimate concerns, and they should be addressed on their own merits.  But what Ingraffea is doing in continuing to claim that natural gas is as bad as coal is not a matter of looking at the same data as everybody else and drawing different conclusions. It is more a matter of distorting science in order to support a preconceived political agenda.”

The other expert, Richard Muller from the University of California at Berkeley, added:

“[I]f you want to make methane leakage sound scarier than it really is, you can present the short term GWPw (global warming potential per unit of weight) of 25 or 72, rather than the long term GWPfm of 3.3 or 10, and perhaps hope that the reader will do the mistaken calculation and come away overly frightened by the large value.”

Presenting the “short term GWPw” is exactly what Ingraffea did, and it was certainly designed to “make methane leakage sound scarier than it really is.” In other words, Ingraffea’s op-ed was not about presenting scientific facts (which it clearly did not do); it was purely about scaring the public.

Original post, July 30, 2013

This week, anti-fracking activist and Cornell professor Tony Ingraffea took to the pages of the New York Times to regurgitate all of his now famous (infamous?) talking points about shale and hydraulic fracturing, focusing chiefly on the well-worn “methane leak” argument. This is the same Cornell professor whose prior work on the subject has been almost universally panned in the scientific community, from the U.S. Department of Energy to one of the lead authors of the forthcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Heck, even the lead author of a study funded the aggressively anti-gas Sierra Club said Ingraffea’s research was “biased” and “wrong.”

As could be expected, shortly after the Times decided activism-disguised-as-science was “fit to print,” experts from across the country begrudgingly weighed in. We say “begrudgingly” because, as CFR’s Michael Levi asked rhetorically about Ingraffea’s arguments, “Is there any value in responding to this stuff anymore? The Cornell + NOAA studies have been ripped up repeatedly.” Levi added later that Ingraffea “badly misrepresents” a previous study, and then asked: “Is there value in debating people who don’t want to think?”


But that’s not all. The Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think-tank in California, also rebuffed Ingraffea’s assertion on methane leakage rates. The intrepid Cornell professor said leakage rates cannot exceed two percent if natural gas wants to maintain its low greenhouse gas profile, before launching into speculative assertions about some limited NOAA research, from which the Environmental Defense Fund said “conclusions should not be drawn about total leakage” – which is exactly what Ingraffea did anyway.

From the BTI:

“[T]he best available studies suggest that leakage rates do not exceed 2 percent. Ingraffea ignored the latest data from the US Environmental Protection Agency, which estimated nationwide fugitive methane emissions at 1.5 percent of natural gas production and indicated that leaks have been on the decline in recent years. A 2012 study published by the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis estimated leakage at 1.3 percent. Our review of estimates of fugitive methane emissions from shale gas production range from 1 percent to 7 percent, with most recent estimates in the 1–to–2 percent range (see graph below). The two leakage studies cited by Ingraffea, which both estimated leakage rates well above 2 percent, are outliers and have been faulted for selective bias and poor measurement and statistical techniques.”

Meanwhile, Louis Derry, a professor from the earth and atmospheric sciences department at Cornell, also pushed back on Ingraffea’s contention that “leaks” from shale development are a climate disaster. Derry wrote:

“Even if one accepts the estimates advocated by some of a higher ‘global warming potential’ for methane by a factor of approximately three, the increase in climate forcing by methane is significantly smaller than for carbon dioxide.

“Using the more standard approach as proposed by the I.P.C.C., the increased 2007-2011 climate forcing from methane is less than 8 percent of the increase in CO2 forcing. Of that 8 percent, only about 1 percent can be related to U.S. shale gas production.

“Although some of the numbers remain uncertain, the basic result is robust. Methane, and in particular shale gas methane, is not a major contributor to climate change.”

Derry did caution, however, that natural gas is not perfect, and certainly not “cost-free” – which is, of course, true of literally any energy source. But he also said natural gas is “without any question advantageous” in terms of environmental impacts, and that it would be “beneficial” to use more natural gas from a climate standpoint. And remember, this is not the first time Ingraffea’s colleagues at Cornell have disputed this theories.

Ingraffea’s activism obfuscates the real risks and benefits regarding shale development. With his latest op-ed, the professor once again opted for pre-packaged, scripted talking points over legitimate scientific facts. And because we’ve heard it all before from this guy, maybe that’s why the scientific community took about 12 seconds to render its verdict on Ingraffea’s latest contribution to the “debate.” His op-ed was published on Sunday, and everything cited above had been published and posted within 36 hours of the piece going live. Who says science moves slow?


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