What to look for in today's Senate hearing on methane

Mark Brownstein

This afternoon, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold an important hearing that should offer some key insights into how the natural gas industry can reduce methane emissions – a critical issue in determining whether natural gas can provide lasting climate benefits, read EDF Chief Scientist’s new post on this topic. Here are a couple things to look out for as the discussion unfolds.

Keep your eye on the science (and scientists): One of the focal points of the hearing is a recent methane emissions study on hydraulically fractured shale gas wells, which was authored by a team of scientists led by Dr. David Allen from the University of Texas at Austin who is one of the hearing’s key witnesses.  The study is the first in a comprehensive research initiative EDF is coordinating along with a long list of experts from partner universities and research facilities and natural gas industry companies to fully understand the scope of methane emissions across the entire natural gas supply chain.

This initial study was peer-reviewed and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS); see my earlier blog here. It made a significant contribution to the existing knowledge on methane, putting forward some of the first-ever direct measurements collected at well sites across the country in more than 20 years. On the whole, it showed total emissions were roughly in line with Environmental Protection Agency’s latest estimate for the natural gas production segment, yet the distribution of those emissions among activities differ, for example:

  • Emissions measurements during “completion flowback” – the process after the well is drilled and fractured, when frac fluids and sands are drawn back up the well to make way for gas production – were 97 percent lower than previously estimated because many drillers used best practices as required by the new EPA rule, which comes into full force in January 2015.
  • Emissions from pneumatic valves, which control routine operations at the well pad, are higher than EPA estimates.
  • So-called “fugitive emissions” – leaks from equipment at the production site – are also much higher than EPA estimated.

The story told by the well completions data is good news, thanks to EPA’s smart regulations. This data indicates that “green completions” (a method of capturing emissions for sales) are highly effective. Using this readily available technology, extending regulatory requirements beyond new natural gas wells, to control emissions from all existing and co-producing oil and gas wells can enable significant methane reductions. But there’s bad news in the data as well. The higher-than-estimated emissions from valves and equipment leaks suggest important opportunities for reducing methane emissions in the future. There is no reason to wait to take action. Anyone at the hearing who claims the UT study proves there’s no methane problem is peddling disinformation or has been misinformed.

It wouldn’t be the first time someone played fast and loose with the facts. Following the publication of the UT study, the American Petroleum Institute’s President Jack Gerard sent an e-mail to Congress saying the study proved hydraulic fracturing was “good for the environment.” In that message, Gerard cherry-picked the study results for numbers that showed methane emissions were going down, never letting the facts get in the way of a good industry story.  Similarly, America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) was quick to tell the Los Angeles Times that “Greater use of natural gas can substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Until we have measured methane emissions from the entire system, we simply don’t know that to be true.

Analysis of the UT methane emissions study is still unfolding, and I suspect after today’s hearing the conversation on what the study really means will be reignited. In answering this question, though, it’s important that all of the facts be weighed. For now, this New York Times editorial and Texas Tribune feature, which ran around the time the study published, do a good job of laying out the full policy implications of this study.