The clearest conclusion that has so far emerged from the debate over a controversial study finding that natural gas is dirtier than coal is uncertainty itself.
The report, released last week by Cornell University scientist Robert Howarth and two of his colleagues, is not the first study to cast doubt on how much cleaner natural gas is than coal, and it won’t be the last. Another study scrutinizing the viability of natural gas is expected next month by Post Carbon Institute fellow Dave Hughes, who agrees with Howarth’s conclusions.
A blowout in a Pennsylvania natural gas well late on Tuesday added some anecdotal evidence to the argument. The Bradford County well has spewed thousands of hydraulic fracturing fluid and prompted the evacuation of seven families, according to the Scranton Times-Tribune. Hydraulic fracturing involves ejecting large amounts of water and chemicals into the ground to loosen the shale gas. The biggest concerns about "fracking" involve chemicals leaking into ground water during the process and not safely disposing of wastewater.
Studies discrediting natural gas' cleanliness have prompted debate in academia and Washington interest groups on all sides. And they aren’t sure how to respond. Many environmentalists accepted natural gas as a cleaner, bridge fossil fuel. Industry executives tout its economic and climate-change benefits. Howarth’s study raised doubts about both positions. For the industry, the criticisms are calling into question its ability to effectively communicate with Americans, experts inside and outside the industry agree.
Not coincidentally, the reports are surfacing just as oil and gas companies – and Washington policymakers – place their bets on recently discovered reserves of shale natural gas in more liberal states like New York and Pennsylvania.
Howarth’s study finds that natural gas, when considering the methane emitted (or leaked) during the fracking process, emits 20 percent to even twice as much greenhouse gases than coal, long deemed the dirtiest fossil fuel. Natural gas has generally been assumed to produce 50 percent less carbon than coal and 30 percent less than oil when burned. That’s still true, but Howarth’s report factors in the production and transport of natural gas.
The study grabbed an unusual amount of attention. In fact, Howarth’s email for at least the past week has automatically replied, in part: “In response to our paper on GHG emissions from shale gas this past week, I am receiving over 400 e-mails per day. Please excuse me if I am not able to respond to each individually, or if I miss some important message from you.” Howarth did not respond to a request for comment.
Many experts agree that the methodology of Howarth’s study is not comprehensive enough to be credible. America’s Natural Gas Alliance, the usually media-shy lobbying group representing independent natural gas companies, capitalized on the widespread criticism. In a blog post on Friday, ANGA spokesman Dan Whitten linked to critiques by five credible experts from wide-ranging organizations, including Council on Foreign Relations energy and climate fellow Michael Levi and Clean Air Task Force scientist Dave McCabe.
Other than the consensus that Howarth’s report uses flawed methodologies, many experts have come to two other conclusions: His report and similar ones indicate that more studies need to be done on the climate-change gases (namely methane) emitted during the production and transportation of shale gas extracted by fracking. The other more potent conclusion is that the industry needs to do more.
“The gas industry needs to be a lot more transparent,” Levi told National Journal. “The industry should be taking the public reception of this study as a sign that people do not believe what they say and that they need to take serious action to change that.”
Environmental Defense Fund scientist Ramon Alvarez made a similar remark on a blog post regarding Howarth’s report: “If the industry wants people to trust that natural gas is a clean alternative, it would do well to spend less time fighting pollution disclosure requirements and more time addressing environmental and public health concerns,” Alvarez wrote on April 14.
To that end, Levi predicts trouble for the gas industry if it doesn’t alter its communications strategy and substantive actions: “If they can’t convince environmental groups that it [natural gas] has lower emissions than coal, then environmentalists have no incentive to help fight their fight in Washington.”
Last week oil and gas companies launched a voluntary public disclosure registry of chemicals used in fracking. But experts say they need to do more to respond to the growing grassroots opposition to fracking in New York and Pennsylvania that’s fueled in part by anti-fracking movies like Gasland. Democracy for America, a grassroots Democratic political action committee, has been showing Gasland to rally support for federal legislation requiring the disclosure of fracking chemicals.
“The industry is focused on communicating with the elite audience in Washington while losing the fight for public approval in the states,” Levi said.
He said companies could ask the federal government to ban the use of diesel in fracking, which has been a point of contention in this debate. Or, companies could publish minimum safety and disposal standards and urge others to follow suit.
Senior oil and gas executives acknowledge the growing concerns.
“We as an industry should welcome the scrutiny of how we hydraulically fracture these wells,” Shell Oil President Marvin Odum said weeks before Howarth’s report came out. “I would be absolutely happy -- whether it’s a regulatory representative actually at our operations and watching everything we do there -- I think that’s the level of transparency that’s going to be needed because there is a growing concern building there and it doesn’t need to be there.”
This article appears in the April 21, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.