EPA Underestimates Fracking's Impact On Climate Change

Bloomberg BNA —The Environmental Protection Agency significantly underestimates the amount and potency of methane emissions, which understates the climate impact of hydraulic fracturing, two Cornell University researchers said May 7.

Professors Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea told reporters the administration has overestimated the climate benefits of increased reliance on natural gas compared to other fossil fuels such as coal. As a result, the White House's recent strategy to address methane won't provide the emissions reductions necessary to address the impacts of climate change, they said.

The EPA estimates methane is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period when it calculates the pollutant's effect on climate. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has increased its estimate of methane's potency in every report since 1996, and it now estimates methane to be 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“The global warming potential of methane is much higher than we thought it was, and the actual emission rates were much higher than we thought they were,” Ingraffea said.

The EPA told Bloomberg BNA May 7 it will begin using a global warming potential of 25 for methane for its national greenhouse gas inventory beginning in 2015. That is consistent with agreements under the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, it said.

Regulations Insufficient

The White House issued its methane strategy March 28. The plan calls for the EPA to reconsider methane emissions controls for the oil and natural gas industry. It also requires the agency to propose methane controls for landfills. Additionally, the Bureau of Land Management must address methane emitted from coal mines operating on federal lands.

Howarth and Ingraffea said the administration's focus on regulating oil and natural gas wells while encouraging the use of natural gas as an alternative to coal won't result in needed emissions reductions in the next two decades. Ingraffea said regulations move too slowly to provide significant benefits for the climate.

“Enacting regulations that encourage the industry to spend more money fixing leaks and stopping venting is too late,” he said.

Methane Levels Triple Estimates

Meanwhile, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder found that measured methane leaks from oil and gas operations in Colorado's Front Range were three times greater than predicted by emissions inventory estimates, according to a May 7 study in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

Howarth and Ingraffea pointed to that study as further evidence that hydraulic fracturing is more damaging to the climate than the administration has previously estimated.

A similar study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November 2013 said the EPA could be underestimating methane emission by as much as 50 percent.

Natural Gas Benefits Defended

Representatives of the American Petroleum Institute hadn't yet reviewed the University of Colorado Boulder study May 7, but spokesman Carlton Carroll defended the benefits of increased use of natural gas.

“U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are down significantly thanks in large part to hydraulic fracturing and the natural gas revolution,” he said in a statement. “Companies are leading the way to reduce emissions, and studies show that methane leaks are a fraction of what EPA predicted just a few years ago. And emissions will continue to fall as existing EPA regulations continue being implemented. The industry already has every incentive to reduce methane emissions because capturing and selling more methane rather than losing it in the atmosphere makes business sense.”

The EPA released five white papers April 15, seeking input on strategies to reduce emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds from the oil and natural gas industry.

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