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Methane leaks from fracking much higher than the EPA estimated

Leaking methane is higher than previous EPA estimates negating benefits of switching to natural gas.
Leaking methane is higher than previous EPA estimates negating benefits of switching to natural gas.
David Zalubowski/AP Photo

A new study published in the Journal of Science found that the EPA is under estimating the amount of methane emitted in the United States by about 50 percent. Much of that excess is due to leaks of natural gas in fracking. Still other leaks are occurring as utilities switch from coal to gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas, which is recognized by nearly all legitimate scientists as the major cause of climate change.

The new study determined that 1.5 percent of America’s natural gas system is leaking.

This latest study was funded by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by the pioneer of hydraulic fracturing, the late George Mitchell.

Researchers concluded that although the leakage is higher than EPA's estimate of 1.5 percent, natural gas is better for the climate than other forms of fossil fuel, such as coal, but only if leakage rates stay below 3.2 percent.

The study authors said there is an important caveat: "If natural gas is to be a 'bridge' to a more sustainable energy future, it is a bridge that must be traversed carefully. Diligence will be required to ensure that leakage rates are low enough to achieve sustainability goals,"

Researchers analyzed 200 technical publications concerning methane leakages from oil and gas operations, including the production, processing and distribution of natural gas, and compared them to the EPA greenhouse gas inventory, which is based on company reports of leakage and activity.

EPA's inventory does not include "super-emitters," the study revealed. These are parts of the oil and gas system which leak most of the methane accounted for in atmospheric studies. By omitting the super-emitters, the EPA was underestimating the actual amount of methane going into the atmosphere.

"There is a high likelihood that a large proportion of emissions are coming from a relatively small number of sites, Steve Hambug, head scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, commented. “This strongly indicates that there is a relatively straightforward capacity to reduce those emissions."

The study authors said they have been discussing their findings with interested scientists at the EPA

The leak rate probably is large enough to negate the value of converting buses and trucks from diesel to natural gas, as governments and private companies have done to help slow the warming of the planet, the scientists concluded.

This study comes as another report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week, shows that the loss of Arctic sea ice is reducing the Earth’s reflectivity, by an amount considerably larger than previously estimated. The study shows that two to three times more of the Arctic is darkening from melting sea-ice than scientists thought.

“Based on our results, the albedo forcing from Arctic sea ice retreat is quite large,” said Scripps climate scientist Ian Eisenman, “Averaged over the entire globe, it’s one-fourth as large as the direct radiative forcing from CO2 during the same period.”

The Scripps study is the first to use direct satellite measurements rather than computer models to assess the decreasing albedo from the loss of sea ice.

Despite all these dire warnings, Congress has shown no interest in dealing with the issue. In fact, Republicans have introduced bills to eliminate the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gasses like methane. There are cases now before the Supreme Court that challenge the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon pollution. Polls how climate change is not one of the top five issues on voters’ minds.

The massive growth of fracking has stimulated the economy and lowered the price of natural gas, causing many utilities to switch to gas from coal. Unfortunately, leaking methane is reducing much of the benefit this switch would otherwise provide. If state or federal law or EPA regulators forced gas producers and transporters to take measures to reduce methane leaks, we would make greater strides to save the planet for our grandchildren.

This will not happen until Americans demand it.

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