New report confirms methane emissions from fracking are high, more needed to understand scale

A report out yesterday from the University of Texas (funded by the Environmental Defense Fund and members of the oil and gas industry) provides the results from a study of methane emissions (a potent global warming pollution) at 190 onshore natural gas sites in the U.S.

Before getting into the findings, it’s worth noting for context that the report is the first in a series of 16 looking at methane emissions during different stages of the gas development process. So, as my colleague Dan Lashof puts it in his detailed analysis of the report, “don’t expect them to settle the controversy over the environmental consequences of natural gas production and use.”

In other words, this should not be misinterpreted for a lifecycle analysis. Industry and others are trying to spin this study as such in order to downplay the problem of methane emissions from natural gas production. But make no mistake: this does not provide a comprehensive overview of methane emissions from natural gas.

To the contrary, it looks at one stage of the process, measuring emissions from potentially the best-controlled sources. So more work will be needed to understand the full scale of the problem.

With all of that said, this report confirms earlier findings that methane emissions from natural gas production are a large contributor to climate change. Specifically, if we were to extrapolate from some of the study’s figures to a national average, the overall total methane emissions from just this one area of the natural gas production process alone is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from more than 10 million passenger vehicles per year.

Additionally, it shows that we can reduce some of this contribution with emissions-reduction technology that should be required by law across the board. NRDC has been saying for a long time that there is significant methane waste emitted throughout the production chain for natural gas development. Our own “Leaking Profits” report last year found that 80% can be prevented by using existing technology, which would cut U.S. methane pollution by one-third and save industry $2 billion/year.

The problem is, these technologies are largely voluntary and not required by law. In order to achieve significant methane reduction, we need industry to act across the board. That means getting laws on the books that require them to do so. We have already seen from past experience that the financial incentive alone has not been enough to get industry to do the right thing. Unfortunately, so far EPA has been slow to require industry to use these technologies, and regulations on the books only apply to new production sites, not existing ones. This report helps demonstrate why that has to change.

Of course, methane pollution is just one piece of the fracking puzzle. There are a number of other public health and environmental threats from fracking and natural gas development that must be addressed – from drinking water contamination to induced earthquakes, increased truck traffic, community impacts and more. Moreover, there are a number of other air pollution concerns, including emissions of pollutants (called volatile organic compounds VOCs) which cause ozone problems or smog, and carcinogens like benzene which threaten neighboring communities.

In short, this study underscores the need to close the methane leaks in existing natural gas development in order to address their serious contribution to climate change. But regardless, fracking should not be expanding in this country unless and until there are sufficient safeguards in place to protect people and communities from all of the serious threats the process poses to public health and the environment.

And we must not forget that the best way to reduce our contribution to climate change is to build up clean, renewable energy sources and use them efficiently. These are energy sources that don’t fuel the kind of extreme weather we’ve seen around the country in recent months. And they don’t put our health and safe drinking water at risk.