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Three Inconvenient Truth’s About Wigley Study

New report erroneously claims natural gas has little GHG reduction abilities using false leakage data that exceeds levels used in previously debunked studies.

This week the scientific community’s credibility took two steps backwards when an Australian researcher claimed natural gas is a substandard fuel for reducing greenhouse gas emissions because it is subject to large leakage rates during production and emits too few pollutants into the environment.

We have covered claims like this before but this one sets a new bar for innacurracy so its worth highlighting again.  Below find just a few key issues with this newest attempt at discrediting clean burning natural gas from shale.

Issue #1: Wigley quotes the widely debunked Howarth study and uses leakage estimates that far exceed those used by Howarth and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in previous questionable studies. We debunked Howarth previously here and were joined by three other impartial academic insititutions, the most recent of which can be found here. But that doesn’t stop Wigley from taking it one step further by assuming leakage rates of up to 10 percent per natural gas well.

A 2011 IHS- CERA report  “Mismeasuring Methane: Estimating Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Upstream Natural Gas Development” shows why the EPA leakage rates, which are paltry compared to Wigley’s,  are unrealistic, astronomically high and do not reflect industry practices. Quotes from the IHS-CERA study are below.

  • EPA’s current methodology for estimating gas field methane emissions is not based on methane emitted during well completions, but paradoxically is based on a data sample of methane captured during well completions. -IHS CERA Executive Summary.
  • The assumptions underlying EPA’s methodology do not reflect current industry practices. As a result, its estimates of methane emissions are dramatically overstated and it would be unwise to use them as a basis for policymaking. The recent Howarth study on methane emissions makes similar errors.
  • If methane emissions were as high as EPA and Howarth assume, extremely hazardous conditions would be created at the well site. Such conditions would not be permitted by industry or regulators. For this reason, if no other, the estimates are not credible.

Of course if EPA and Howarth got it wrong this study decided to hit it out of the ballpark.  Which begs another question, what actually occurs during production to ensure this valuable product, which costs millions to produce, is not wasted and literally lost to thin air.

Issue#2:  EPA, Howarth and now Wigley make their assumptions based on erroneous academic studies and assumptions and not on current industry practices.  The IHS-CERA report call this out in very clear terms.

  • “Very little gas makes it to the surface during the drilling process, and that gas is captured and flared off. The drilling “mud” that cools the bit and lifts cuttings to the surface is also designed to prevent high-pressure reservoir gas and oil from entering the wellbore and migrating up the annular space of the well, by virtue of the weight of the mud column in the wellbore. If there were accidental oil and gas inflow into the wellbore from the reservoir, it would be dangerous if any oil and gas were released on surface. To prevent this from happening, a blowout preventer (BOP) is installed on the surface. A BOP stack is designed to contain any pressure that does reach the surface, and this pressure is relieved by diverting stray gas to a flare stack. A controlled flame at the flare stack releases C02 but not methane, to the atmosphere.” -IHS CERA page 5
  • “After the well is cleaned up, the flowback process begins. Fraccing fluid flows from the wellbore to the surface, where it is diverted to an open pit or enclosed tank. Initially the flowback stream is primarily fluid, but over time this flow brings increasing fractions of reservoir gas as well. Gas contained in the flowback stream is flared, either through an igniter at the outflow of an open pit or a tank open at the top or by a flare stack attached to an enclosed tank. As soon as the gas flow is in sufficient quantity and of adequate quality, it is sent by pipeline to processing facilities and then on to sales.”- IHS CERA page 5

Put succinctly, IHS CERA has the following to say about the previous debunked studies, which as we indicated earlier, pale in comparison to the erroneous assumptions made by Wigley.

Given the rapid growth of unconventional production, rigorous analysis of these effects is important, such an analysis must be based on facts and clear understanding of industry practices. Recent estimates of  the GHG emissions from drilling and completion of unconventional natural gas wells do not meet this standard.  The EPA would do better to rely on a new, more appropriate data-driven methodology.

Issue #3:  Likely knowing that reliance on estimates that far exceed previously debunked studies wouldn’t hold up to review Wigley took things a step further.  He goes on to claim that natural gas’s would increase ever so slightly increase global temperatures because it emits to few pollutants. Huh?

Wigley takes a hypothetical scenario where the global energy supplied by coal is cut in half and replaced with natural gas. How does this work? Wigley correctly points out that coal releases things like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and coal ash.  He then leaps to say that these particles accelerate global cooling thereby reducing the impacts of global warming.  His quote below.

Whatever the methane leakage rate, you can’t get away from the additional warming that will occur initially because, by not burning coal, you’re not having the cooling effect of sulfates and other particles,” Wigley says.

What he forgets to mention however is that these pollutants have been tied to acid rain, ozone depletion, the onset of serious respiratory diseases and sometimes even pre-mature death.  In fact, in a previous report the American Lung Association declared these, and other pollutants, kill about 13,000 Americans a year.

Yet another “unbiased” academic researcher bending over backwards in an attempt to curtail the production of clean burning natural gas. Unfortunately, were not suprised.

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