MIT Report Takes Square Aim at Howarth’s “Unreasonable” Inputs

A new paper by two experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and published in the journal Environmental Research Letters suggests that Cornell professor (and activist) Robert Howarth’s thesis about greenhouse gas emissions from shale is even more irreconcilably divorced from the facts than was previously thought.

The MIT paper — coauthored by one of the lead authors of the forthcoming Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC — is appropriately titled “Shale gas production: potential versus actual greenhouse gas emissions.” As many will remember, Dr. Howarth erroneously assumed that every single cubic foot of natural gas that he couldn’t account for was vented into the air as pure methane, contrary to technological realities and regulations requiring at least partial capture (more on that in a minute). You might also remember that Howarth’s paper has been widely panned by the U.S. Department of Energy, various universities, and even his own colleagues at Cornell. Many of these critiques stemmed from Howarth’s unreasonable leakage assumptions, not to mention an inflated global warming potential of methane far above what even the IPCC recommends.

Lo and behold, the new paper finds that the use of existing field technologies and “reduced emission ‘green’ completions” have resulted in actual GHG emissions that are “substantially lower than several widely quoted estimates” – and Cornell’s in particular. As the MIT researchers note:

“Although fugitive emissions from the overall natural gas sector are a proper concern, it is incorrect to suggest that shale gas-related hydraulic fracturing has substantially altered the overall GHG intensity of natural gas production.” (p. 1)

But wait, there’s more.

As we pointed out in our critique of the NOAA study earlier this year — which also claimed methane leakage rates were abnormally high — the current operating environment in Colorado and many other states renders such an assumption useless. Why? Because new regulations have taken hold that require companies to reduce emissions, sometimes by as much as 95 percent. That’s another key point in the MIT report:

“Some of the contemporary analysis on shale gas-related fugitive emissions has not attempted to account for the impact of real world gas handling field practice. For example, in Howarth et al (2011b) it is assumed that all potential fugitive emissions are vented. This is an unreasonable assumption, not least because some producing states have regulation requiring flaring as a minimum gas handling measure.” (emphasis added, p. 4)

Although folks like Howarth want to believe that natural gas operators are venting methane because it’s apparently more profitable to do so (notwithstanding basic rules of economics), the truth is actually the opposite. In its report, MIT actually quantifies several scenarios that show how much money operators would be losing if they vented as much natural gas as Howarth claims in his hypothetical model. Their conclusions suggest an assumption of high leakage does not reflect operational reality. For example:

“If the cost of reduced emission completion is $1000 per day as stated by Devon (2008), 95% of the 2010 Barnett [Shale] wells yielded positive net revenues, i.e. operators added to the value of their wells by capturing the potential fugitive emissions. Even at twice this reported capture cost, $2000 per day, 83% of the 2010 Barnett wells would still [yield] positive net revenues, and this trend is repeated in all the other shale plays.” (p. 4-5)

Activists constantly accuse the industry of being motivated only by “profits” and bottom lines, and they use that reasoning to suggest that operators are venting methane at an alarming rate because it’s cheaper than capturing it. But as with so many other claims made by activists, this line of reasoning reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the industry they so desperately want to malign.

Companies are using green completions and capturing more methane than opponents will ever admit, and the bombshell reason is because it’s not only environmentally responsible to do so, but it also makes very good business sense.

It will never be convenient for opponents to face the scientific reality that developing natural gas from shale is both an environmental and economic boon to the United States, but that shouldn’t preclude the rest of us from enjoying that fact.


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