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Researchers: Politics Obscure the Results of New Fracking Study

University of Texas scientists who led a study of methane gas emissions say both sides of the fracking debate are misinterpreting the results of the report.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
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Advocates on both sides of the debate on hydraulic fracturing are using the results of a recent long-awaited study to back their political agendas. But the scientists behind the report say they are jumping to conclusions.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, sought simply to measure how much methane leaks from natural gas production sites immediately following the process of hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of gas drilling that has rapidly expanded statewide. But while oil and gas industry supporters have seized on the results to support their view that the technique is safe and has been overregulated, anti-fracking groups have dismissed the study as industry-funded. 

“The focus of this work was to collect measurements,” said David Allen, a UT-Austin professor and lead author of the study. “Various stakeholders have emphasized some or all of these results.”

Plants powered by natural gas emit far less carbon dioxide than ones powered by dirtier fuels like coal, prompting industry and environmental advocates alike to laud natural gas as the key to a cleaner energy future. But critics allege that extracting and producing the gas leaks too much of the potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, canceling out any positive effects. The Environmental Protection Agency and others had collected data on the amount of methane that leaks from natural gas production, but those numbers are outdated and have been questioned by both sides. Allen's team of scientists sought newer, more reliable data. 

What they found, as Allen puts it, is relatively simple: "Some emissions were lower than previously estimated; some emissions were higher than previously estimated."

That’s a far cry from how the results were described by Americans for Tax Reform’s Christopher Prandoni in an opinion piece for Forbes. He wrote that “average emissions were almost 50 times lower than EPA estimates” and then lambasted fracking regulations. But the figure he cited referred only to “well completions” — the procedure of cleaning a newly drilled and fracked gas well — not to fracking emissions overall. 

In fact, the researchers found that leaks from tanks and chemical injection pumps actually contributed far more emissions than the EPA had thought.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., was among those who cited the study to criticize federal regulation of fracking. He wrote in a statement, “The EPA has been on a witch hunt to shut down hydraulic fracturing, and yet again the evidence doesn’t back up their excessive claims. … I hope this study’s results will knock some sense into the EPA.” 

But the Environmental Defense Fund, which partially sponsored the study, chastised Vitter and others for misinterpreting the results. EDF officials said the lower-than-expected emissions found during "well completions" suggest that new and cleaner technology already in use is working to reduce pollution from the operations.

Dr. Ira Leifer, an atmospheric researcher who is measuring methane emissions across the U.S. for NASA and did not participate in the UT study, said he knew the results would be misinterpreted because they “are irrelevant to the question people want answered.” Advocates wanted straightforward answers about whether fracking's disadvantages outweigh the benefits of natural gas. 

The researchers’ work was groundbreaking because they had direct access to natural gas well sites and could place emissions sensors as close to the source as possible — not because the results would make a sweeping statement on the merits of hydraulic fracturing. 

“I cannot say whether fracking does or doesn’t cause a significant increase of methane in the atmosphere based on the available data and the available studies,” Liefer said. 

The perspective of environmental groups also disappointed Leifer. Many dismissed the study because 90 percent of its $2.3 million cost was borne by oil and gas companies. Focusing on industry funding, which Leifer said doesn’t necessarily imply biased results, “completely missed the point."

And, Leifer said, the study only looks at a small portion of the natural gas supply chain: initial production at a well site and the combining of gas from multiple wells.

“We’re in the second quarter of the game,” said Ramón Alvarez, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, which is helping to fund several more examinations of methane emissions for procedures like gas processing, transmission and storage, and local distribution. Scientists and other environmental groups have also pointed out that recent “flyover” studies of emissions done by plane showed far more methane leakage than the UT study.

In other words: Experts say a lot more research needs to be done before anyone can definitively say whether or not hydraulic fracturing’s environmental impacts negate the benefits of replacing dirty fuels like coal with cleaner-burning natural gas. And they add that the results each study produces should be treated with caution, rather than seized upon as new justification for or against natural gas production. 

“The level of constructive discussion is very low,” said Dr. Lawrence Cathles, a professor of geological sciences at Cornell University. “You have people so polarized and so opinionated, and their minds are so well made up, I don’t think there’s anything you could say that would change their mind.”

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