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EPA’s crumbling case for new regs on fracking

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently rolled out new regulations on methane emissions for oil and gas development. These rules come even as the industry has slashed emissions in recent years, all while natural gas production has skyrocketed. They will hurt the men and women who work for small producers – the biggest economic engine the country has had over the past five years – the hardest.  

Of course, the reason EPA wants to regulate methane is to mitigate climate change, since methane is a greenhouse gas. But based on the most recent peer-reviewed studies – many of them spearheaded by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) – and some of the best data we have available, the climate argument falls apart.   

{mosads}First, data from the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory show that methane emissions from the oil and gas exploration and production are a mere 1.07 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, underscoring how little impact methane regulations would have on national emissions.  

Second, recent studies have found methane “leaks” from natural gas development are already well below the threshold (3.2 percent leakage rate) at which scientists believe natural gas may lose its greenhouse gas advantage.

Further, the implementation of Clean Air Act regulations promulgated in 2012 will, alone, achieve the president’s Climate Action Plan goal for methane emission reductions, making these measures superfluous and political.  

As Alex Trembath of the environmental group, The Breakthrough Institute, explained in a recent piece, data on methane emissions show “that methane leakage is a minor factor determining the benefit of a coal-to-gas transition and that methane leakage levels are well within acceptable ranges.” 

Nevertheless, each time a study finding low leakage rates has come out, instead of acknowledging that fact, some environmental groups like EDF have proclaimed that the data show emissions are “higher than previous estimates” and because of that new EPA regulations are absolutely necessary. The press has generally followed EDF’s lead, producing headlines like, “Methane leaks in Barnett Shale vastly higher than EPA estimates, study shows,” and “Methane emissions higher than federal estimates, study shows.” 

But claims like these ignore a critical fact. The most important information is not a comparison of one emission estimate with another. That tells us nothing about the overall environmental impact. What’s important is the actual methane leakage rate, which is what determines whether natural gas is beneficial for the climate. That’s why we’re talking about methane, a greenhouse gas – climate change and how to address it, right? 

With most, if not all, studies finding low emissions, it’s no wonder that even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that natural gas provides enormous environmental advantages. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy recently said, “Responsible development of natural gas is an important part of our work to curb climate change.” Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz has also said, “About half of that progress we have made [on greenhouse gas emissions] is from the natural-gas boom.”  University of California-Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller put it best when he said, “Environmentalists who oppose the development of shale gas and fracking are making a tragic mistake.”   

As much as some environmental groups may want folks to be distracted into conversations about relative estimates between studies and inside baseball conversations about whether EPA needs to tweak some of its data assumptions, it would be unfortunate if we lost track of the bigger – and very positive – story of natural gas.

Brown is a spokesperson and team lead for Energy In Depth, a research and education program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA).

Tags Ernest Moniz Gina McCarthy

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