There They Go Again: Latest Cornell Paper Just More of the Same

It was touted by their PR consultants in a media advisory sent around this week as “a major new paper” in response to the mountain of criticism that has accumulated since the release of their initial study last April (that is, after the first one the year before was retracted). But read through the “new” document released by Cornell professors Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea on Thursday, and you quickly come to the following realization: Not only don’t these guys offer a credible response to any of their critics, they don’t even acknowledge that they exist.

Last April, EID took the lead on pointing out some of the more obvious errors in the Cornell GHG report, eventually (and happily!) making way for the cavalcade of academics, government agencies and even environmental groups that followed – each one successively identifying a new and seemingly more obvious and/or egregious miscalculation that, taken on its own, would render the entire thesis unacceptable.

Of course, because none of those basic errors were either corrected or acknowledged in the latest iteration of the Howarth paper, there’s just not a whole lot of new material for us to rebut. Still, a couple of points are probably worth making for those genuinely interested in understanding what’s going on here.

Point #1: The “new” Howarth paper attempts to justify its previous conclusions based on what it says are “new” emissions data from EPA.

The problem?

  • Howarth et al. are correct that EPA issued new emissions estimates for natural gas systems in late 2011 – that document is here for anyone who would like to give it a look. Unfortunately for the Cornell researchers, though, those new estimates don’t even approach the same stratosphere of the high-end methane leakage rate of 7.9 percent that Howarth and his colleagues manufactured to arrive at their conclusions. According to EPA, the actual rate is closer to 2.2 percent – a figure that recent studies suggest is far too high in its own right.
  • According to Cornell professor Larry Cathles in a response paper published this month in the journal Climatic Letters: “While their low-end estimate of total leakages from well drilling through delivery (3.6%) is consistent with the EPA (2011) methane leakage rate of ~2.2% of production, and consistent with previous estimates in peer reviewed studies, their high end estimate of 7.9% is unreasonably large and misleading.” (page 2)
  • Of course, the other problem is with the EPA estimates themselves. According to a report issued in August 2011 by the respected energy consulting firm IHS-CERA: “EPA’s [new] analysis relies on assumptions that are at odds with industry practice and with health and safety considerations at the well site. IHS CERA believes that EPA’s methodology for estimating these emissions lacks rigor and should not be used as a basis for analysis and decision making. … EPA derived the emissions factor from two slide presentations at Natural Gas STAR technology transfer workshops, one in 2004 and one in 2007. These two presentations primarily describe methane that was captured during “green” well completions, not methane emissions. EPA assumes that all methane captured during these green completions would have been emitted in all other completions. This assumption does not reflect industry practice.” (page 5)

Point #2: Just like last time, Howarth et al. assume that virtually all methane produced during the “flowback” phase of operations is simply vented into the atmosphere – not captured or burned.

The problem?

  • For starters, it’s not even close to being correct. According to that IHS-CERA report: “Compounding this error is the assumption that all flowback methane is vented, when industry practice is to capture and market as much as possible, flaring much of the rest. Vented emissions of the magnitudes estimated by Howarth would be extremely dangerous and subject to ignition. The simple fact that fires are rare in all gas-producing areas suggests that this analysis grossly overestimates the quantities of methane that are leaking uncontrolled into the atmosphere at the well site.” (page 9-10)
  • Even more problematic, Howarth et al. rely on flowback data they say comes from the Haynesville Shale to make their claims, simply extrapolating that out to account for and characterize all wells everywhere in the country. But according to Dr. Cathles of Cornell: “The numbers they use to represent fugitive emissions for the Haynesville Shale cannot be found in the references they cite.” (page 6) Added Cathles: “If a sales pipeline is not available, the gas captured by REC technologies could be easily be (and are) flared and the GHG footprint thereby minimized.” (page 3)
  • Finally, Howarth et al. again cite EPA emissions data to support their contention that as much as 85 percent of the methane produced during the flowback stage is vented into the atmosphere. Interestingly, EPA’s actual estimates of vented methane come in at 49 percent – which, according to industry data, is itself wildly off the mark. According to Cathles: “Based on Howarth et al’s own references … we believe the losses during drill out and well completion for unconventional shale gas wells are not significantly greater than those cited by Howarth et al. for conventional gas wells. …This is supported by some of the examples cited by the EPA and Howarth et al. The Williams Corp (EPA 2007, p 14) shows, for example, that [greater than] 90 percent of the flowback gas is captured and some of the remainder flared (George 2011, p14).” (page 7)

Point #3: Howarth and his team refuse to acknowledge that their previous assumptions on lost-and-unaccounted for gas were incorrect, even in the face of a direct response/refutation by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The problem?

  • As we highlighted in our initial rebuttal last year, Howarth, et al. estimate that between 1.4 percent and 3.6 percent of all natural gas produced over the life of a well leaks off into the atmosphere during the transmission process, a hypothesis that relies heavily on “lost and unaccounted for gas” (LUG) figures reported in a non peer-reviewed Texas trade magazine that went out of circulation in December 2010.
  • CFR’s Michael Levi, reporting on a presentation produced last year by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), explains why that’s a bad idea: “The NETL documents don’t address the Howarth study explicitly, but if you flip to page 25, you’ll see a big part of the discrepancy explained. Some readers will recall that Howarth found a large fraction of produced gas from unconventional wells never made it to end users, assumed that all of that gas was vented as methane, and thus concluded that the global warming impacts were huge. As the NETL work explains, though, 62% of that gas isn’t lost at all – it’s ‘used to power equipment.’” (CFR blog, “Rebutting the Howarth Shale Gas Study,” May 20, 2011)

Given the lack of substantive response to these and several other important points highlighted in the Cathles paper, it’s understandable that Howarth and his team didn’t receive quite the same volume and intensity of press coverage this time around relative to their first effort back in April.

Unfortunately, though, much of the coverage they did get seeks to advance the simple narrative that this whole thing is just a friendly dust-up among faculty at Cornell – with Howarth and Ingraffea on one side, and Cathles, Larry Brown and Andrew Hunter on the other. This Bloomberg lede is typical of the approach: “Two groups of Cornell University researchers have split over the contribution to global warming by rising extraction of natural gas from shale beds through a process known as fracking.” (Bloomberg, Jan. 20, 2012)

Of course, the reality of the situation is quite a bit different. Actually, it’s Howarth and Ingraffea on one side, and the rest of the intelligent world on the other. In the nine months since their initial paper was published, detailed responses have been compiled and released by no fewer than a dozen separate academic, government and non-governmental institutions (a quick list of those is available here and here). In a study commissioned by the Sierra Club, one researcher even went so far as to call the Howarth data biased: “We don’t think they’re using credible data and some of the assumptions they’re making are biased. And the comparison they make at the end, my biggest problem, is wrong.”

Of course, over on Planet Ithaca, not only don’t any of these criticisms hold merit – according to the Cornell research team, they don’t even exist. In an online chat hosted by the Syracuse Post-Standard in September, Prof. Ingraffea provided the following answer when asked how he’s dealing with the all the controversy that his paper has engendered: “We have not received any of what we would consider intense peer criticism.” Which we guess is true. Just so long as you continue to believe it.


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