The Fracking Industry Faces Its Climate Demon

To preserve its climate credentials, the natural-gas industry has to tame a tricky menace: methane.

A gas flare, created when excess flammable gases are released by pressure valves during natural gas and oil drilling, rises out of the ground in North Dakota.
National Journal
Ben Geman
April 17, 2014, 3:07 p.m.

BUF­FALO TOWN­SHIP, Pa. — On a flat, roughly one-acre square cut in­to a hill­top in the rolling farm­lands, four nat­ur­al-gas wells sit ad­ja­cent boxy ma­chines that sep­ar­ate wastewa­ter and hy­dro­car­bons sucked from the ground over two square miles.

At­tached to those boxes are gauges small enough to eas­ily es­cape no­tice. But they’re of out­size im­port­ance: They meas­ure meth­ane — a green­house gas over 20 times more po­tent than car­bon di­ox­ide — and oth­er emis­sions. Con­trolling meth­ane is key to lower­ing the cli­mate foot­print of the nat­ur­al-gas in­dustry and its ef­forts to sell it­self as the en­vir­on­ment­ally friendly fossil fuel.

And so Matt Pitzarella, spokes­man for nat­ur­al-gas pro­du­cer Range Re­sources, is eager to point out the emis­sions gauge, and es­pe­cially eager to point out its res­ults. “Meth­ane levels — zero per­cent,” he says. “You have no is­sues, noth­ing com­ing out.”

But over­all in­dustry meth­ane emis­sions across the com­plex gas-de­vel­op­ment chain are hardly zero, either in Pennsylvania or na­tion­wide. Their size, however, is a mat­ter of fierce dis­pute and on­go­ing re­search.

At stake in the de­bate: nat­ur­al gas’s role as friend or foe in the battle against cli­mate change.

It’s an im­port­ant ques­tion at a time when sci­ent­ists are of­fer­ing ur­gent warn­ings about the need to cut green­house-gas emis­sions world­wide, and it’s cent­ral to the ques­tion of wheth­er us­ing gas to dis­place car­bon-heavy coal is an ef­fect­ive weapon against cli­mate change.

A ma­jor re­port this month from the United Na­tions’ In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al Pan­el on Cli­mate Change said dis­pla­cing coal-fired gen­er­a­tion with today’s mod­ern gas-fired power-plant tech­no­logy is help­ful in the com­ing dec­ades as a “bridge” to a de­car­bon­ized glob­al power sec­tor — but only if “fu­git­ive emis­sions as­so­ci­ated with ex­trac­tion and sup­ply are low or mit­ig­ated.”

Thus far, however, there is no con­sensus about the size of the nat­ur­al-gas in­dustry’s meth­ane foot­print.

A num­ber of re­cent stud­ies say the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency has badly low-balled the amount of meth­ane, the main com­pon­ent of nat­ur­al gas, es­cap­ing from de­vel­op­ment.

“Based on EPA’s es­tim­ates, nat­ur­al gas is a win­ner when com­pared to coal or pet­ro­leum for elec­tri­city gen­er­a­tion,” said Mi­chael Obeit­er, a seni­or as­so­ci­ate with World Re­sources In­sti­tute’s cli­mate and en­ergy pro­gram. “[But] wheth­er or not EPA’s es­tim­ates for meth­ane emis­sions hold up re­mains to be seen.”

Range says it has an ag­gress­ive pro­gram to stem emis­sions.

A few feet away from the wells and the sep­ar­at­ors, tanks that hold con­dens­ate or wa­ter have equip­ment on top to col­lect emis­sions of gas and send it back in­to Range’s lines to be sold. The wells them­selves have emis­sions sensors too that are mon­itored re­motely and in­spec­ted phys­ic­ally.

“There are huge eco­nom­ic drivers to have all these dif­fer­ent safe­guards in place,” Pitzarella said of these and vari­ous oth­er con­trols the com­pany em­ploys on its maze of equip­ment. For Range and oth­er com­pan­ies profit­ing from the Key­stone State’s frack­ing boom, trap­ping gas makes more sense than let­ting it dis­ap­pear.

Range, a com­pany at the fore­front of Pennsylvania’s rise in gas pro­duc­tion, says it’s also care­ful to pre­vent re­leases from the pre­pro­duc­tion “com­ple­tion” of wells once frack­ing op­er­a­tions are com­plete.

But the gas drilling and pro­duc­tion side of the in­dustry is just part of the equa­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to EPA’s dis­puted data, slightly less than a third of meth­ane emis­sions from nat­ur­al-gas in­fra­struc­ture come from pro­duc­tion. Oth­er leaks come from the maze of pro­cessing, trans­mis­sion and stor­age, and dis­tri­bu­tion equip­ment — and from the maze of dif­fer­ent com­pan­ies in­volved in these stages.

There are grow­ing calls for more-strin­gent reg­u­la­tion of the in­dustry to bet­ter clamp down on leaks.

Col­or­ado re­cently ad­op­ted first-in-the-na­tion policies to dir­ectly reg­u­late meth­ane from the oil-and-gas sec­tor, part of rules to ad­dress both cli­mate and smog-form­ing volat­ile-or­gan­ic-com­pound pol­lu­tion.

“I would take a page from Col­or­ado’s book,” Katie Mc­Ginty, former head of Pennsylvania’s De­part­ment of En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion and a cur­rent Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate for gov­ernor.

Look for calls to bet­ter con­trol meth­ane to get louder.

A study by Purdue and Cor­nell uni­versity re­search­ers re­leased this week found that sev­en well pads in a Pennsylvania re­gion sur­veyed were pro­du­cing emis­sions that are 100 to 1,000 times EPA es­tim­ates.

The pa­per in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tion­al Academy of Sci­ences notes that these high-emit­ting wells are just a tiny frac­tion of the total wells in the re­gion, but ac­count for as much as 30 per­cent of the meth­ane in the area sur­veyed by plane to de­tect plumes.

The pa­per is note­worthy be­cause wells in the drilling phase have not pre­vi­ously been linked to large emis­sions, the au­thors note, though the study drew im­me­di­ate in­dustry push­back.

EPA’s latest green­house-gas “in­vent­ory” shows de­clin­ing meth­ane emis­sions from the nat­ur­al-gas sec­tor, but EPA ac­know­ledges that es­tim­ates of meth­ane leaks are evolving and that new data is ar­riv­ing from in­dustry re­port­ing to the agency, sci­entif­ic re­search, and oth­er av­en­ues.

“EPA looks for­ward to re­view­ing in­form­a­tion and data from these stud­ies as they be­come avail­able for po­ten­tial in­cor­por­a­tion in the In­vent­ory,” the agency said.

This week EPA re­leased a series of white pa­pers on ways to ad­dress meth­ane leaks at dif­fer­ent stages and pieces of equip­ment in the de­vel­op­ment pro­cess, such as in­clud­ing com­pressors and well com­ple­tions.

EPA says it’s com­mit­ted to work­ing with the in­dustry to cut emis­sions, and it also isn’t rul­ing out new reg­u­la­tions that would go bey­ond 2012 rules to cut volat­ile or­gan­ic com­pounds from oil and gas wells, which the agency notes also cuts meth­ane as a “co-be­ne­fit.”

The En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund, which stud­ies meth­ane emis­sions care­fully, said the Purdue-Cor­nell pa­per — the latest of sev­er­al re­ports al­leging EPA’s vari­ous es­tim­ates are too low — shows that there’s good news and bad news.

“While there are of­ten dif­fer­ences among emis­sions re­por­ted by dif­fer­ent stud­ies, with vari­ab­il­ity ob­served between in­di­vidu­al well sites and spe­cif­ic re­gions, they all sup­port a pair of con­clu­sions: meth­ane emis­sions are a prob­lem and there are vi­able solu­tions avail­able,” EDF Chief Sci­ent­ist Steven Ham­burg said in a blog post Thursday.

Ac­cord­ing to a widely noted 2012 pa­per by re­search­ers with EDF and sev­er­al uni­versit­ies, new nat­ur­al-gas-fired power plants are a cli­mate win­ner com­pared with coal as long as meth­ane leak­age from the vari­ous phases of gas de­vel­op­ment can be kept be­low roughly 3 per­cent.

EPA’s cur­rent es­tim­ates sug­gest emis­sions of roughly half that amount, but as new data pour in, the top­ic re­mains un­settled.

But in­dustry of­fi­cials bristle at the idea that their emis­sions are a ma­jor prob­lem. And for Range Re­sources, com­pany of­fi­cials say con­trolling leaks is already part of their cor­por­ate cul­ture without new rules.

Range Re­sources says its total green­house-gas emis­sions amount to less than a fifth of 1 per­cent of its an­nu­al pro­duc­tion. In an in­ter­view at the com­pany’s Pennsylvania of­fice roughly 15 miles south of Pitt­s­burgh, Den­nis De­gn­er says the com­pany has been im­prov­ing con­tinu­ously.

“We have an ex­tens­ive fa­cil­it­ies design team here with a lot of chem­ic­al-en­gin­eer­ing back­ground, mech­an­ic­al-en­gin­eer­ing back­ground, and they just con­tin­ue to ad­vance, year in and year out, those designs so that we can cap­ture those va­pors,” said De­gn­er, the com­pany’s dir­ect­or of op­er­a­tions for its South­ern Mar­cel­lus Shale Di­vi­sion.

And to be sure, the gas boom that has trans­formed the U.S. in­to the world’s largest pro­du­cer has helped to drive down car­bon emis­sions — in Pennsylvania and na­tion­wide — by shak­ing up elec­tri­city mar­kets.

In Pennsylvania, where car­bon emis­sions have been fall­ing, util­ity gi­ant PPL draws gas from the Mar­cel­lus shale to help power its 3,000 mega­watts of gas-fired gen­er­a­tion.

And na­tion­wide, power com­pan­ies have in­creas­ingly been ditch­ing coal in fa­vor of gas, which pro­duces about half as much car­bon emis­sions when burned.

It’s among the ma­jor reas­ons why, ac­cord­ing to EPA data re­leased this week, U.S green­house-gas emis­sions fell 3.4 per­cent between 2011 and 2012 and are 10 per­cent be­low 2005 levels.

Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have walked a care­ful line. They’re pro-gas but ac­know­ledge the meth­ane prob­lem, and the White House has made tack­ling meth­ane a part of its second-term cli­mate agenda.

Still, they stop far short of some en­vir­on­ment­al­ists who say the emis­sions are bad enough to make the nat­ur­al-gas boom in­to a cli­mate vil­lain.

At a re­cent brief­ing with re­port­ers, White House sci­ence ad­viser John Hold­ren said bet­ter meth­ane con­trols would in­stead “mag­ni­fy” the cli­mate be­ne­fits of gas over coal.

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