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
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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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