Early Thursday morning, McKibben weighed in on seismic activity in Oklahoma by tweeting,
And about an hour before that tweet, McKibben was quoted in a Washington Post story on a sparsely attended weekend protest of TransCanada’s planned Maryland pipeline, saying,
“More and more, people realize that each of these [pipeline] projects deepens our commitment to fossil fuels, locking us in for 40 or 50 more years. The scientific verdict on natural gas has changed, and changed dramatically, in the past half-decade.”
Though McKibben’s earthquake tweet and his claim that the “scientific verdict” on natural gas has “changed dramatically” dealt with different issues, they were equally egregious in their disregard of the facts.
The scientific consensus on natural gas also remains exactly the same as it was nine years ago when McKibben was standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol demanding power plants switch to the clean burning fuel — natural gas has significant climate benefits which have helped the U.S. dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, period.
Recent Energy Information Administration (EIA) data shows that increased natural gas use is responsible for 62 percent of the total 12 percent of carbon reductions the United States has achieved since 2005.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has previously hailed the “decline in energy-related CO2 emissions in the United States” as “one of the bright spots in the global picture” and went on to note, “One of the key reasons has been the increased availability of natural gas, linked to the shale gas revolution.”
Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — which Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune has said is “the gold standard” for “getting a big-picture understanding of what’s happening to the climate” — largely credited fracking and increased use of natural gas for the U.S. achieving greenhouse gas reductions in its most recent assessment,
“A key development since AR4 is the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply… this is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.” (Ch. 7, p. 527)
But what about methane leaks that McKibben and other fossil fuel opponents keep claiming wipe out natural gas’ climate benefits? The latest science proves activist tales of what they characterize as an encroaching climate bogeyman are just as mythical as tales of Big Foot or any other made up monster.
The latest EPA data show that methane emissions from oil and natural gas systems have fallen 19 percent since 1990 at the same time that natural gas production has increased 52 percent and oil production has increased 28 percent.
Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies based on direct measurements at production sites — including several studies by the Environmental Defense Fund —show that methane emissions from natural gas systems are well below the 3.2 percent threshold for natural gas to maintain its climate benefits (ranging from 1.1 to 1.7 percent).
The aforementioned IPCC assessment also acknowledges that numerous studies show methane leakage rates are very low,
“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.” (emphasis added)
And several recent studies — including research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) — show that methane emissions from oil and natural gas systems are declining and that agriculture and wetlands are responsible for the rise in global methane emissions since 2007.
The scientific community also agrees that wastewater injection from day to day oil and gas production — a separate process from fracking — is the cause of most of the induced seismicity Oklahoma has experienced in recent years.
The very first sentence of the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) list of myths and misconceptions regarding induced seismicity that “Fracking is not causing most of the induced earthquakes,” further clarifying that, “Wastewater disposal is the primary cause of the recent increase in earthquakes in the central United States.”
A recent Stanford University study also notes that almost all of the wastewater disposed of in Oklahoma injection wells is salt water that is co-produced along with oil and gas during day-to-day production. The study’s press release states,
“We know that some of the produced water came from wells that were hydraulically fractured, but in the three areas of most seismicity, over 95 percent of the wastewater disposal is produced water, not hydraulic fracturing flowback water.”
“Contrary to Oklahoma, analysis of oil and gas production versus seismicity rates in six other States in the USA and three provinces in Canada finds no State/Province-wide correlation between increased seismicity and hydrocarbon production…”
Notably, there are no injection wells in immediate vicinity of the cluster of earthquakes McKibben tweeted about Thursday. And though that fact doesn’t rule out a connection to wastewater injection, it is an example of why the issue of induced seismicity is complex.
Fortunately, the latest USGS data show that the rate of felt earthquakes in Oklahoma is decreasing dramatically this year when compared to 2015 and 2016. Felt earthquakes (magnitude 2.8 or greater) have declined 73 percent from the same period of time last year and 80 percent from 2015 levels, according to the latest USGS data, a trend that has been partially credited to regulatory efforts to reduce wastewater injection volumes.
Of course, considering all of this independent, third party data and scientific consensus regarding induced seismicity and natural gas’ climate benefits is publicly available, McKibben surely can’t be completely oblivious to the inaccuracies he was pushing on Thursday. But regardless of whether McKibben is just igornant or deliberately disingenuous with his knowledge of established scientific consensus, he is using fear-based misinformation to push his “Keep It In The Ground” agenda.