After spending $18 million on 16 previous methane studies with the stated purpose to “influence government policy concerning…the regulation of fracking,” the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has come out with yet another methane study designed to advance that objective. This study targets natural gas-fired power plants and oil refineries, both major end-users of natural gas. EDF claims its study shows “Emissions from power plants, refineries may be far higher than reported,” however after closer analysis, the merits of the study pose some serious questions.
Authors Acknowledge Flaws
The report analyzed air samples from three refineries and three natural gas-fired power plants and is very vague about data collected from this very small sample size. Most notably, the report does not indicate the age of the refineries or age or type of natural gas-fired power plants. This is a critical part of the analysis for several reasons, chief among them being the fact that the authors point to pollution from leaky industrial hardware.
Any analysis on methane should take into account new gas-fired plants, and particularly new combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plants, as these plants will be fueling our future. So not only was the sample size for this study very small, it completely discounts new technology and environmental protections included with CCGT plants.
While the samples are clearly problematic, particularly when calculating future projections, it should also be noted that the data was pulled from six flights over the sample areas. This form of flyover research is certainly not new for EDF, as its previous studies have also included flyovers to determine air emissions data. However, for this report, the authors note that there were “high uncertainties” due to high winds during the sample collecting process that could have affected emission estimates for two of the three natural gas power plants studied. Moreover, the study only provides “preliminary estimates” which were collected during peak operating hours and during period of start-up and shut-down, which suggests the estimates may be overstated.
Climate/Air Quality Benefits of Natural Gas Still Outweigh Negligible Methane Emissions Found
While the headline of a recent EDF blog on the report touts that the study found methane emissions from oil refineries and natural gas power plants may be “may be far higher than reported,” it is essential to note that even if this studies’ estimates are correct, its high-end emissions estimate would account for roughly just two percent of total U.S. methane emissions, according to the latest EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory. And the actual report states clearly that there were “climate benefits observed immediately” and after the life cycle analysis was conducted, the author’s still found that the “climate benefits of using natural gas electricity generation is not compromised.” We agree!
In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced last week that the U.S. continues to reduce CO2 emissions, dropping by three percent last year, thanks to increased natural gas use. The IEA reported that the U.S. now has the lower CO2 emissions levels since 1992, even while the economy has grown by 80 percent in that time span, and the population has grown from 256 million in 1992 to over 324 million today.
Not only has increased use of natural gas for electrical power generation dramatically reduced U.S. carbon emissions — accounting 63 percent of the 12 percent total reduction in U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions during last decade — natural gas-fired power is also proving fruitful on the global scale.
IEA also reported last week that carbon emissions remained flat on a global scale three consecutive years, doing so at the same time the global economy has grown.
New gas-fired power plants, like the ones sprouting up all over Ohio, are also combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plants, which emit 90 percent less sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and fine particulate matter than coal-fired power plants.
Natural gas emits about one-fifth the nitrogen oxide as coal, and considering natural gas use for electrical generation has increased 78 percent (21 percent to 34 percent) since 2005 and has overtaken coal as the top fuel source for electrical generation, it’s no wonder why NOx emissions have dropped 38 percent in that timespan. As the following EID graphic illustrates, NOx and other harmful emissions have declined dramatically as natural gas use has ramped up.
Also curious is the timing of this latest EDF report, in that it was launched within days of a letter sent to the U.S. EPA by the U.S. House Democrats Committee on Natural Resources requesting more data on methane emissions. And not surprisingly, each paragraph of the letter includes similar methane misinformation and flat-out inaccuracies, which EID details here.
Bottom line: Natural gas’ climate and air quality benefits outweigh methane emissions from natural gas-fired power plants, refineries and oil and natural gas systems a whole.
We would also be remiss not to mention that almost all of these EDF funded studies have been published in a timely fashion by Environmental Science and Technology. This is the same publication that swiftly published the University of Cincinnati (UC) Carroll County air quality study that was retracted for exaggerating cancer risks by 725,000 percent due to an “honest error.” The same publication has also declined to publish the UC Groundwater Study, which anti-fracking funders were “disappointed” to learn that fracking was not causing groundwater contamination. So, similar to the 16 previous EDF methane reports, there appears to be a political element at play with both this report and the publication it appears in. In fact, the authors spend a significant amount of the last two pages of this report making the case for more aggressive regulations on gas-fired power plants and oil refineries. From the report,
“Therefore, consideration of improved emissions monitoring and reporting procedures for NGPPS (Natural Gas-Fired Power Plants) and refiners would significantly improve U.S. inventory emissions estimates. “
This tactic is certainly not new for EDF, as we have discussed here time and time again. But when this study’s findings are placed in proper context — recognizing that methane emissions from these sources are negligible and the benefits of natural gas are numerous — it is clear this study is just the latest example that such regulations are unnecessary.