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Last week, watchdog group NC WARN accused the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of vastly underreporting the amount of methane leaking from gas wells across the US.  Methane, a greenhouse gas 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the short term, is the primary component of natural gas. 

Methane leaking from our nation’s gas infrastructure – from wells to pipelines to compressor stations – has an enormous impact on our climate footprint. Since 2012, a progression of peer-reviewed studies show that the US has significantly under-estimated methane emissions from oil and gas. NC WARN is now asking EPA’s Office of Inspector General to investigate key equipment used to measure methane emissions. At issue is an instrument called the Hi-Flow Sampler; if the machine is not calibrated correctly then the methane readings are incorrect.  

EPA, industry and state regulators use the Hi-Flow sampler widely. Environmental Defense Fund based 2013 and 2014 studies on methane emissions measured with a Hi-Flow sampler; these kinds of ‘bottom up’ studies measuring methane emitted from point sources at oil and gas sites are critical to understanding where and how to stop methane emissions. Yet we’ve been frustrated over the years as bottom up studies seem to show markedly less methane than ‘top down’ studies are finding in the atmosphere, from overflights and even satellite measurements. Where is all the methane coming from?

The more you know

Citizen led science can help.  Earthworks’ Citizens Empowerment Project uses accepted state of the art technology to document methane and other harmful emissions from oil and gas facilities.  This technology in the hands of citizen groups has already begun to make a difference in the how EPA approaches the problem of methane pollution. EPA’s new methane rule limits pollution from new oil and gas wells and  has now begun a process that we hope will result in a similar rule covering existing sources as well.

But it all depends on sound, accurate science. Our efforts are undermined if these reductions are measured with faulty equipment.  Hi-Flow samplers are in wide use; something has to be done to make sure that their problems are fixed. We hope that EPA’s Inspector General investigates NC WARN’s allegations, and that the findings help federal and state regulators get accurate information about methane pollution. Earthworks stands for sound science; and methane is a ticking climate time bomb. For the sake of the global climate and for the families living near oil and gas, scientific research on methane emissions should be conducted independently and without any commercial or political agendas, in an open and transparent way.