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New research fuels ongoing fight over methane emissions

Eleven new studies published in the scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology today suggest that methane emissions in North Texas are 50 percent higher than estimates based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas inventory, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

In 2013, the EPA dramatically lowered its estimate of how much of a potent heat-trapping gas such as methane, the main component of natural gas, leaks from wells, pipelines and other facilities during natural gas production.

The agency said that tighter pollution controls played a role in an average annual decrease of 41.6 million metric tons of methane emissions from 1990 through 2010, a 20 percent reduction from previous estimates.

But Steve Hamburg, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, writes in a blog post that the emissions are higher and that the 11 studies they’ve helped coordinate, which are consistent with previous research, “indicates the industry has a significant methane pollution problem…”

The EDF, a non-profit environmental advocacy group, coordinated the production of the studies as part of a larger campaign to “better understand where oil and gas methane emissions are coming from and how best to reduce them,” Hamburg writes.

Related: Researchers announce detailed methane study

The studies have mind-boggling names for a layman.

There is Integrating Source Apportionment Tracers into a Bottom-up Inventory of Methane Emissions in the Barnett Shale Hydraulic Fracturing Region. There is also Aircraft-based Estimate of Total Methane Emissions from the Barnett Shale Region; Methane Emissions from Leak and Loss Audits of Natural Gas Compressor Stations and Storage Facilities and Characterizing fugitive methane emissions in the Barnett Shale area using a mobile laboratory.

The good news, according to Hamburg, is that the higher emissions from these sites are a result of avoidable operating conditions such as equipment leaks and tank venting.

The bad news, he adds, is that “as easy and as affordable as these solutions are, many companies simply are not using them. As long as they remain optional, it’s likely to stay that way,” he writes.

The massive release of studies was designed possibly to influence the Obama administration, which announced in January that it planned to dramatically reduce methane leaking from oil and gas production sites by 40 to 45 percent over the next decade.

In the coming weeks, Hamburg said he expects the EPA and the Bureau of Land Management to propose rules to help meet the White House’s reduction goal.

Meanwhile, the industry is not impressed.

Steve Everley, a spokesman for Energy In Depth, an industry advocacy groups, said that one of the studies confirms that in the overwhelming majority of Barnett Shale operations, methane leakage rates are “exceedingly low.”

“While some people may try to emphasize the few examples of high emissions, this was pretty clearly the exception rather than the rule,” Everley said. “Nationwide, methane emissions have fallen considerably as shale gas production has skyrocketed, which underscores how the industry has been proactively addressing methane with investments in new technologies.”

“Credit is due to EDF and the other researchers who emphasized that this is a manageable issue, and not some inherent flaw in how we produce the natural gas that powers our homes and is reinvigorating domestic manufacturing,” he said.

 

This article was written by Max B. Baker from Fort Worth Star-Telegram and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.