Fracking Maverick Unmoved by EPA Air Rule

on April 25, 2012 at 10:00 AM

Bob Howarth is sticking to his guns.

The Cornell University professor, who enrages America’s booming natural gas industry by arguing that shale gas from fracking emits at least as many greenhouse gases as coal, is not swayed by the EPA’s latest regulations designed to cut methane emissions from natural gas operations.

While the new rules are designed to reduce methane emissions from shale gas by a third, that wouldn’t stop the natural gas industry being the largest U.S. emitter of methane, contributing 40 percent of the total, or bring its GHG emissions below those of coal, Howarth argued, as he has done since 2010.

Although the cut in emissions of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – required by the EPA’s final rule would be significant, it wouldn’t fundamentally change his argument that shale gas doesn’t in fact have the GHG-reduction benefits claimed by its backers, Howarth told Breaking Energy.

“When considered over the critical 20-year integrated time period after emission, the greenhouse-gas footprint of shale gas would still be substantially worse than that of coal,” he wrote in an email.

Heated Debate Persists

That’s heresy to the gas industry which argues strongly that increasing use of the fuel – especially the ongoing switch to natural gas from aging coal-fired power stations – will help the U.S. meet emissions-reduction targets while increasing energy independence and generating thousands of jobs.

“Credible experts from MIT to the Department of Energy and from Carnegie Mellon to the Council of Foreign Relations have all taken issue with Howarth’s assumptions and methods,” wrote Dan Whitten, a spokesman for America’s Natural Gas Alliance.

“His own Cornell colleagues have also publicly rebuked his work. Howarth uses data that he admits is weak, bases his conclusions on assumptions that are outside the scientific norm, and vastly overstates emissions estimates,” Whitten said, echoing an earlier two-page ANGA bulletin.

The industry’s case is backed by John Hanger, who as former environment secretary for Pennsylvania, oversaw the early development of that state’s portion of the Marcellus Shale, one of the biggest U.S. unconventional gas fields.

In a blog after the EPA’s rules were published on April 17, Hanger said they “destroy” Howarth’s argument because they are based on so-called green completions being used on 50 percent of gas wells before 2015, as opposed to an assumed rate of zero in a study done by Howarth in 2011.

Green completions treat flow-back water from gas wells to separate gas and liquid hydrocarbons, allowing each to be treated or sold. The EPA – whose rule also makes big cuts in emissions of volatile organic compounds and air toxics – estimates the industry can save between $11 million and $19 million by selling the gas that currently goes to waste.

Howarth, who calls himself “a biogeochemist and earth-systems scientist,” issued a detailed rebuttal of ANGA’s charges, saying his estimates on methane emissions were similar to those from the EPA; that any weakness in his data had been due to dependence on incomplete information from the industry, and that the industry has misrepresented his numbers on power-plant efficiency.

Read more Breaking Energy coverage on Howarth’s findings here, and here.

ANGA’s claim that Howarth was forced to retract a previous abstract is “a lie perpetuated by the oil and gas industry,” he told Breaking Energy.

To make further cuts in methane emissions, the U.S. needs to address leaks in storage, high-pressure transmission lines and local distribution lines, Howarth wrote. “Unless we solve this problem, a continued reliance on natural gas is very dangerous from the standpoint of global warming.”