Researchers’ Own Data Contradict Conclusion Linking Fracking to Spike in Methane Emissions

A new study by researchers at Harvard University uses satellite readings to claim that U.S. methane emissions have increased 30 percent since 2002. This study comes while several reputable estimates – including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory – show the exact opposite has occurred. Further, the researchers’ own data also do not support their narrative.

Predictably, headlines from anti-fracking echo chamber media outlets have trumpeted the study as evidence that fracking is to blame for the alleged rise in methane emissions. But the researchers actually admit they found no evidence that ties their findings of increased methane emissions to shale production:

“… The US has seen a 20% increase in oil and gas production [US IEA, 2015] and a 9-fold increase in shale gas production from 2002 to 2014 (bottom panel of Figure 1) but the spatial pattern of the methane increase seen by GOSAT (Greenhouse Gas Observing Satellite) does not clearly point to these sources. More work is needed to attribute the observed increase to specific sources.”

Indeed, as the following graphic from the report illustrates, there is no correlation between existing U.S. shale plays and areas the researchers found increased methane emissions. In fact, the graphic shows methane emissions are actually greater in many areas with no shale development and/or little to no oil and gas production.

Methane Map









Shale Plays













Many of the areas highlighted in red to illustrate increased methane emissions in the first graphic – including Illinois, south-central Pennsylvania, far northern and far southern California, New York state, North Carolina and Nebraska – have no shale development. Other states highlighted in red such as Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri and Georgia have no oil and gas production at all, yet have seen huge spikes in methane emissions, according to the study.

The researchers admit that their method of using satellite retrievals (along with a single surface observation in Oklahoma) to compile their data inhibited them from determining specific sources of methane emissions.

“The trend is largest in the central part of the country but we cannot readily attribute it to any specific source type.”

Fortunately, there is a reasonable explanation as to why the central part of the country is the area the study found had the biggest increase in methane emissions between 2010 and 2014.

Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota and Missouri are huge agricultural states, and livestock activities (enteric fermentation and manure management) overtook natural gas and petroleum systems last year as the largest source of methane emissions in the United States.

Methane Pie Chart














EPA has also acknowledged that methane emissions from agricultural activities have been on the rise in recent years while overall methane emissions from oil and natural gas production have fallen:

“Methane (CH4) emissions in the United States decreased by almost 15% between 1990 and 2013. During this time period, emissions increased from sources associated with agricultural activities, while emissions decreased from sources associated with the exploration and production of natural gas and petroleum products.”

The researchers’ findings clearly (if unintentionally) demonstrate this trend.

Coal mining is also a major source of methane emissions. That could explain why top coal producing states such as Kentucky, Illinois and Virginia all have seen major methane emission spikes, according to the study. Again, none of these states has any significant shale production.

The researchers flatly deny that there has been any significant downward trend in U.S. methane emissions since 2002, stating: “… the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates no significant trend in U.S. anthropogenic methane emissions from 2002 to present.” But the following EPA graphic shows that emissions have indeed fallen significantly since 2009.

Methane 1990-2013












This EPA graphic illustrates declining methane emissions since 2009

EPA also acknowledges that methane emissions from oil and natural gas fell 11 percent from 2005-2012 and that trend continued in 2013, as below EID graphic illustrates, and in 2014 as well, as methane emissions from the petroleum and natural gas systems sector dropped from 77.2 million metric tons CO2 equivalent in 2013 to 73 million metric tons CO2 equivalent in 2014.


The EPA credits voluntary implementation of new technologies by the oil and natural gas production industry as major reasons for the recent decline in emissions, among other operational improvements:

“Reasons for the 2007 to 2013 trend include an increase in plunger lift use for liquids unloading, increased voluntary reductions over that time period (including those associated with pneumatic devices), and increased Reduced Emission Completions (RECs) use for well completions and workovers with hydraulic fracturing…” (p. ES-14)

This could explain why the study found areas with significant shale and conventional oil and gas production such as Wyoming and Colorado have seen no significant upward trend in methane emissions, according to the study. The Barnett and Eagle Ford shale regions in Texas have also seen much lower increases when compared to states with no oil and gas production such as Iowa and Georgia. Kern County, California’s only significant shale production area, has actually seen a downward trend in methane emissions from 2010-2014, according to the study.

These facts haven’t stopped anti-fracking activists such as Robert Howarth from telling groups like Climate Central that shale development is to blame:

“I believe the U.S. probably is responsible for this much of an increase in global methane emissions. And, the increase almost certainly must be coming from the fracking and from the increase in use of natural gas.”

This study and EPA data does not support Howarth’s assessment, however, and it illustrates how shale production opponents such as Howarth continue to ignore evidence that methane emissions are not only falling, but can be attributed to several other sources other than oil and gas production.

Anti-fracking critics also continue to ignore shale gas’ contribution to reducing CO2 emissions to 20-year lows while continuing to take methane emissions contribution to climate change out of perspective.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest assessment made it clear, it’s largely because of hydraulic fracturing and natural gas that the United States has been able to reduce its GHG emissions dramatically:

 “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. 18)

And a recent report from University of California-Berkley physics professor Richard Muller highlights the fact that methane’s actual 20-year global warming potential is 11 rather than 86 due to the fact that methane is much lighter than CO2. Muller also points out that methane essentially evaporates in the atmosphere are 20 years, with just .003 percent remaining after 100 years, compared to 36 percent for CO2.

These are just a couple reasons University of Oxford atmospheric physicist Raymond Pierrehumbert has been a vocal critic of scientists/anti-fracking activists such as Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea, who continue to focus on methane emissions. Pierrehumbert offered the following assessment of the Harvard report to Climate Central:

 “It is always useful to know what the emissions of various greenhouse gases are, but methane is still just a sideshow, and relative to what the U.S. needs to do to fulfill its Paris commitments with regard to keeping the warming under 2°C, even a substantial upward revision of methane leakage is almost completely irrelevant. The warming due to steady methane emissions essentially stops increasing after just two decades, and is largely reversible once the leakage stops.”

This report is the latest in a barrage of misinformation on methane emissions being pushed by fracking opponents. Fortunately, its data actually paint a positive picture, showing methane emissions from oil and gas development are low, and that natural gas, thanks to fracking, is providing significant climate benefits.


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