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Why the new EDF report doesn’t mean natural gas is a climate friendly fuel

The Environmental Defense Fund, partnered with the oil and gas industry, published a paper yesterday that reports the results of direct measurements of methane emissions from 27 natural gas well completions (out of more than 20,000 well completions that occur in any given year). 

Although the paper shows that emissions of one phase of oil and gas development can be relatively low under certain circumstances, the research should not be interpreted as supporting natural gas as a climate change-friendly fuel.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas – more than 72 times as harmful as carbon dioxide according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — that is often simply released to the atmosphere during oil and gas development. Well completions – the process by which a drilled well becomes a well that produces gas – are only one step in the process of getting natural gas from underground to the consumer. Until a few years ago, discussion of methane leakage from oil and gas production was nonexistent. 

Then in 2011, Dr. Robert Howarth and his colleagues in a peer-reviewed scientific paper, raised the question of whether natural gas, because of the leakage of methane during production and from pipelines, might be at least as significant a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions as coal. In addition, Howarth and his co-authors highlighted the lack of data on emissions that underlies the assumption by significant parts of Washington that coal is dirtier than natural gas.

The EDF report released today is a direct response to the challenge identified by Howarth: we need direct measurements of methane emissions from all natural gas development to make informed decisions about the climate impacts of natural gas. Unfortunately, the EDF report does not get us what we need.

What is most notable about today’s report is that the methane measurements were all made at sites offered by the industry participants – they were not a random sample of typical gas well sites.  Participating companies cherry-picked sites for the study, and the scientists went and studied them.

It is also unfortunate that a privately-funded initiative was required to get this limited data. In other settings, the oil and gas industry admits that emissions data would limit its growth, and is therefore opposed to regular, independent testing.

On this issue, and with all oil and gas development, the industry has used its influence to reduce our regulators to bystanders when it comes to practical oversight. 

Furthermore, other recent independent government (NOAA) measurements of methane emissions from oil and gas development – including all facilities of oil and gas production – show that methane emissions are much much higher than those provided by EDF’s analysis of a narrow slice of emissions in this report.

In sum, the limited and highly uncertain measurements reported in this article offer little for those wanting a realistic picture of methane emissions from an industry that does everything it can to avoid transparency. 

Actual, useful data for making policy decisions – real world measurements that are collected from random sites selected by independent observers – will have to come from somewhere else.  What EDF and the industry have provided here is, at most, an ivory tower scenario for emissions from gas well completions that will only serve those wanting to perpetuate our reliance on gas.

More importantly, reports like this that try to put lipstick on a pig shouldn't distract us from the fact that the only truly clean energy comes from renewables and conservation. Real world plans — as in New York — exist to make the transition away from these inherently dirty fuels. All we lack is the political will is to get us there.