Methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing operations have become the latest target for activists seeking to ban hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking.” A recent article in the Nation, titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry,” by anti-fossil-fuel activist Bill McKibben is a perfect example of the cognitive dissonance that occurs when activism supersedes science in the name of altering public policy.
McKibben asserts methane, the primary component of natural gas, is escaping into the atmosphere in sufficient quantities that burning natural gas to generate electricity could cause more global warming than burning coal. He argues in favor of his view by showing methane is more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but he arrives at these conclusions by cherry-picking data helpful to his cause; ignoring studies that arrive at different conclusions; and reporting discredited studies as Gospel truths.
In reality, methane is not the monster it’s made out to be, because emissions from oil and gas operations are generally low, and when leaks do occur, they are fixed quickly and easily.
One study cited by McKibben was conducted by known anti-fracking activists Anthony Ingraffea and Robert Howarth. This 2011 study claims to have found very high emissions, as high as 11 percent of total production, but this study used unrealistic assumptions to effectively cook the books so the authors could arrive at the alarming conclusions they wanted from the very start.
For example, when estimating methane emissions, they assumed all methane from certain stages of the fracking process was simply discharged, or vented, into the atmosphere with no attempt to control emissions. This is a poor assumption, however, because oil and gas operators use special equipment to capture methane and volatile organic compounds during the drilling and completion process to limit methane emissions.
Additionally, when methane cannot be captured and put in a pipeline destined for market, it is burned, or flared, at the wellhead, producing carbon dioxide and water. Pretending these technologies do not exist and that these mitigation procedures are not widely practiced is a dishonest depiction of methane emissions. Recent scientific studies have found much lower methane emissions than were reported by McKibben.
Other studies have found exceedingly low methane emissions. A fly-over study measuring methane emissions in the Haynesville (Texas), Fayetteville (Arkansas), and northeastern Marcellus (Pennsylvania) shale formations found very low emissions as a percentage of total production in each of these basins. Loss rates were estimated to be 1–2.1 percent of total production from the Haynesville region, 1–2.8 percent from the Fayetteville region, and 0.18–0.41 percent from the northeastern Pennsylvania area of the Marcellus region.
Additionally, when methane leaks do occur, they can be effectively managed by using equipment that detect leaks in real time.
A recent study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences investigated sources of fugitive methane emissions in the Four Corners region in the southwestern United States and found 250 point sources of methane emissions. Researchers found 49–66 percent of the methane escaping into the atmosphere came from only 10 percent of the point-source emitters. This is good news, because it means methane emissions can be cut by more than half by simply fixing the top 10 percent of leaking equipment.
The study also reported oil and gas operators fixed these leaks soon after they were made aware of their existence, which isn’t surprising, because methane that leaks into the atmosphere cannot be captured and sold to customers. Oil and gas operators have a strong financial incentive to decrease leaks, much like dairy farmers would have a strong incentive to fix pipes that were leaking milk, the product they wish to sell, onto the ground.
Claims that the only way to stop methane from having a greater warming impact on the planet is to stop fracking entirely are not supported by the scientific data. It is true the science of measuring methane is an evolving science that utilizes progressively less-flawed methods, but few studies have as many shortcomings as the ones promoted most by Bill McKibben.
Isaac Orr (email@example.com) is a research fellow for energy and environmental policy at The Heartland Institute. Follow him on Twitter @thefrackingguy. Orr also wrote a full-length rebuttal to McKibben’s article, which can be accessed here.