Four Things to Know About the New Portland State Methane Study
Researchers at Portland State University have just released a new methane study, which claims that emissions from fossil fuel development stayed relatively stable in the 1980s and 1990s but increased from 2000 to 2009.
To be quite frank, it’s difficult to see the modern relevance of this study, considering that it blames all fossil fuels for methane emissions, but doesn’t explain which specific sources are responsible. Further, its data only run through 2009, and its vague findings are contradicted by peer-reviewed research that attributes higher methane emissions to biogenic sources, rather than energy production.
Here are a few quick things to know:
Fact #1: Evaluates all fossil fuels together without making any distinction regarding what fuel might be increasing
The researchers claim,
“We present strong evidence that methane emissions from fossil fuel sectors were approximately constant in the 1980s and 1990s but increased significantly between 2000 and 2009.” (p. 1)
But the researchers give no indication of how much methane is being emitted from natural gas or coal production when making this statement, even though the emissions from each type of fuel would be dramatically different. They would also have discrepancies in different countries. For instance, as the researchers note, much of the increase can be attributed to “increased [coal] mining in China.”
The bottom line is that anyone looking at this study to determine if methane emissions affect natural gas’ climate impact would not be able to find any answers, since that data simply aren’t available within the report.
Fact #2: A recent NOAA study comes to exactly the opposite conclusion finding biogenic sources, rather than fossil fuels, are responsible for increased methane emissions
A study recently released by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand (NIWAR) found that oil and natural gas producers are not to blame for a global increase in methane emissions. As the lead author of the study, Hinrich Schaefer told Climatewire:
“Currently increasing methane levels are caused not by fossil fuel production but rather by wetlands or, more likely, agriculture.”
On the increase in agriculture, the study itself notes that India, China and South East Asia are likely emitting the highest amounts of methane: “India and China’s dominance in livestock-emissions and S.E. Asian rice cultivation are consistent with the location of the source increase.”
Fact #3: Researchers actually use the discredited Howarth/Ingraffea study to back up claim about natural gas’ methane emissions
The researchers claim,
“Both recent increases in coal emissions, from increased mining in China, and increased natural gas emissions, form the onset of large-scale hydraulic fracturing of shale gas, are substantiatied by recent studies and emissions inventories.” (p. 4)
The study the researchers cite to back up that claim? None other than the now infamous study by Anthony Ingraffea and Robert Howarth, which claims to have found astronomical emissions, and has been completely discredited in the scientific community.
Even President Obama’s former Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu (a Nobel Prize-winning physicist), said of Howarth and Ingraffea’s research: “we didn’t think it was credible.”
Other researchers who have criticized Howarth’s work include University of Chicago climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert; Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller; and Cornell earth, atmospheric sciences professor Louis Derry. Michael Levi from the Center for Foreign Relations asked rhetorically about Howarth and Ingraffea’s research: “Is there value in debating people who don’t want to think?”
Fact #4: Study after study has shown that methane emissions from natural gas are low and that U.S. GHG emissions are decreasing dramatically, thanks to natural gas
Numerous studies including ones by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have found low methane leakage rates between 1.2 and 1.9 percent, which is well below the 3.2 percent of production rate the scientific community says is the benchmark for natural gas to retain its environmental benefits.
Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released a report, which found that methane leakage rates from three major shale developing regions are very low, about 1.1 percent of production.
As Alex Trembath of the environmental group The Breakthrough Institute explained, data on methane emissions show “that methane leakage is a minor factor determining the benefit of a coal-to-gas transition and that methane leakage levels are well within acceptable ranges.”
Meanwhile, it’s thanks to fracking that the United States is the only country in the world to achieve dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. As the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explained in its Fifth Assessment Report,
“[T]he rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal-drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply…is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.”