Latest EDF Report Fails to Acknowledge Low and Rapidly Declining Methane Emissions

This week, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) released a report suggesting that the oil and gas industry’s reporting of methane emissions is “poor” and that these emissions are a “rising risk” that “threaten[s] a core plank of natural gas’s often touted value proposition.”  But that’s simply not what the science tells us.  The science – including dozens of reports spearheaded by EDF itself – has clearly shown that methane emissions are well below the threshold for natural gas to have significant climate benefits, and are only continuing to decline.

Let’s have a look at the facts:

Best available science – including EDF’s own research – shows low and dramatically declining methane emissions

EDF states in the report:

 “The latest scientific studies on methane emissions from the natural gas and oil industries suggest that, in order to maximize the climate benefits of a transition from both diesel and coal to natural gas on all time scales, methane emissions from the industry must be limited to an emissions rate of 0.8%. This means that each individual segment throughout the natural gas value chain, from well site to burner tip, must contribute much less than 0.8%. A study by the University of Texas found that the average rate associated with natural gas extraction is 0.42%.”

If each of the four sectors of the industry must have an emissions rate of 0.8 percent, emissions for the entire system must be under 3.2 percent in order for natural gas to be beneficial for the climate. It’s worth pointing out that EDF has also admitted on its website that natural gas is advantageous for the climate “as long as leakage remains under 3.2%.”

The best available science shows that methane emissions from natural gas development are far below that 3.2 percent figure.  In fact, the University of Texas study that EDF mentions found the overall methane leakage rate for natural gas systems to be about 1.5 percent.  EDF released nearly a dozen studies in 2015 (three of which are included in the graphic below), which found very low methane leakage rates of between 1.2 and 1.9 percent.

Methane leaks

In several of these studies, the researchers admitted that they actively sought out “super-emitters” in the Barnett Shale, yet they still found methane emissions to be very low.

EDF also points to a report it did in conjunction with the Rhodium Group, which argued that $30 billion in unburned natural gas is “being emitted globally by the oil and gas industry” but does not mention that that same study found a very low methane leakage rate in the United States of only 1.3 percent.

The researchers quote the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest climate assessment, pointing out that it states that “nearly a quarter of the warming we are experiencing today is caused by methane and other short term climate pollutants.” However, EDF does not include that the IPCC also said it’s largely thanks to hydraulic fracturing and natural gas that the United States has been able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions dramatically.  As the IPCC put it:

“A key development since AR4 is the 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.” (Ch. 7, p. 18)

On methane emissions specifically, the IPCC states,

“While some studies estimate that around 5% of the produced gas escapes in the supply chain, other analyses estimate emissions as low as 1% (Stephenson et al., 2011; Howarth et al.,2011; Cathles et al., 2012). Central emission estimates of recent analyses are 2%─3% (+/‐1%) of the gas produced, where the emissions from conventional and unconventional gas are comparable.” (p. 19; emphasis added)

The IPCC also clarifies that even “[t]aking into account revised estimates for fugitive emissions, recent lifecycle assessment indicate that specific GHG emission are reduced by one half” as more power plants are powered by natural gas (p. 19).

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its Greenhouse Gas Inventory, which found that methane emissions from natural gas production have fallen 38 percent since 2005.   Over the same period, U.S. natural gas production increased by 26 percent.


With methane emissions from natural gas production low and continuing to fall, why isn’t EDF focusing its efforts on larger sources of methane?

Oil and gas exploration and production only accounts for a little more than one percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, as the below chart shows:

And, as the below EPA graphic shows, agricultural-related activities such as enteric fermentation (livestock) and manure management actually exceed oil and gas systems as the top U.S. industrial source of methane emissions when combined.

Chart 2

Therefore it’s curious that EDF hasn’t made similar efforts towards the agricultural industry or the landfill industry, whose combined emissions are far higher.  Why has it focused all its efforts on an industry that has low emissions, which are only continuing to decline?

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