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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 9/30/13

Much Ado About Nothing: EDF Fracking Study Misguided and Irrelevant

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The recent Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on methane gas released by the fracking process of natural-gas extraction, which was 90% funded by oil-and-gas interests, was narrow in scope.  The conclusions it offered, which have subsequently been used in support of fracking as less harmful in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions than other carbon fuels, specifically coal, are erroneous and irrelevant. 
The EDF has received substantial criticism for working with oil and gas companies on the study, the first in a planned series, and justifiably so. The interests of the carbon industry are in direct opposition to that of environmental organizations and advocates concerned with reducing or eliminating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, so well-deserved shame on anyone who allows their organization's integrity to be compromised in support of a market sector determined to utilize every last atom of fossil fuels to maximize profits regardless of the adverse consequences, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. On this point I am in full agreement with Naomi Klein, whose recent comments regarding the big environmental NGOs who continually compromise legitimate and urgent goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for expediency, near meaningless half-measures, and of course funding from the extractive and exploitative carbon industry, have made her a target (especially for the EDF).
The EDF-methane study enjoyed not only 90% industry funding but unprecedented access to fracking sites and operations  by -- no surprise -- the same companies that funded it. That in itself is not the problem; theoretically oil-and-gas companies could assist EDF and fund meaningful studies. The problem lies in the fact that the authors studied data on methane released from normal operations on new wells exclusively choosing to completely exclude data on the the real issue; the total methane released by fracking , i.e., the actual amount of methane released by fracking from existing natural geological processes increased as a result of fracking, abnormal releases of methane from the process of fracking extraction and the subsequent transport of the recovered natural gas, how things progress as sites get older, and normal operations on both new and older existing sites. Using similar criteria, the EDF could perform a study on the environmental dangers of deepwater drilling and determine that based on data from normal operations, oil exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico poses little or no danger to the environment. 

There is broad-based concern that the process of fracking is resulting in significant increases in the amount of methane gas released into the atmosphere. Methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, by a factor of over 70 times more than CO2 in the short term.  Although short-lived compared to CO2, far smaller amounts of methane have the potential to push the global climate system past critical tipping points, destabilizing the life-support systems of the planet irrevocably much faster than would CO2. Clearly there is a lot at stake for everyone in this issue; huge profits for oil-and-gas companies on the one hand and a growing concern over climate chaos on the other. In light of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( IPCC ) 5th Assessment Report the urgency of addressing anthropogenic climate change cannot be understated.  

CSG well pad, Pilliga Forest, December 2011
CSG well pad, Pilliga Forest, December 2011
(Image by lockthegate)
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CSG well pad, Pilliga Forest, December 2011 by lockthegate

It is a contentious, confusing, complicated subject so I spoke to two of the world's leading scientists in the field to further explain the key points relating to the EDF-fracking study. Ira Leifer, PhD, is a preeminent scientist in the highly specialized field of remote sensing and was the chief mission-coordinating scientist for the NASA gulf missions after the BP blowout; for the past two years he has been traveling extensively across the North American continent collecting data on methane levels to compare with that obtained by satellite. Sandra Steingraber, PhD, is an acclaimed science writer, biologist, and ecologist who is a leading authority on the links between cancer and human health and is the science adviser to Americans Against Fracking.
Specifically looking at the EDF study, Dr. Leifer noted the following;
"The study as set out was well designed to answer a very specific question -- do normal operational activities from fracking gas production release more or less methane to the atmosphere than conventi onal gas production?
"As such, the study follows the EPA bottom-up approach for estimating emissions.
"Methane is of great concern because of its short lifetime - on a political timeline, it has a bigger impact than CO2 to atmospheric warming.
"The study findings are not a surprise. It would be a surprise if the industry did not apply the same level of standards to fracking as normal production given that lost methane affects the bottom line negatively.
"Hence, the study was designed and supported by industry to answer the question: Are they doing due diligence to their shareholders as fracking production expands. Industry funding is just not an issue -- management needs the answer as it affects their bottom line, and must be justified to the board of directors. 
"The study does not address the public-policy question: what is the total effect of fracking? Does this worsen greenhouse warming by increasing methane release to the atmosphere? Sadly it adopts the EPA (bottom up!) mindset, which adds up emissions from all the detailed parts of production, ignoring:
"Secondary emissions from the geologic system driven by production activities (pressurization).  
"Direct emissions from abnormal operations (leaks, accidents, etc.), which occur from time to time and somewhere are always occurring.
"The effect of putting more methane in our aging and leaky natural-gas pipeline-distribution infrastructure.
"Thus, the EDF study is a lower limit on the total impact, and by definition, a lower-limit underestimates real-world emissions. In contrast, where bottom-up approaches are compared with top-down approaches, like airplane measurements, higher values are found.
"From reports of flammable tap water to our basic understanding of geologic reservoir systems, there is reason for concern that fracking is susceptible to worse indirect emissions than conventional production. Where conventional production does not incorporate re-injection (advanced recovery), reservoir pressure is lessened, even reducing natural emissions.
"This episode highlights the extremely critical need for (independent) studies that actually address the whole picture. But doing so will require broadening the narrow-view EPA lens to a wide angle that sees the entire panorama. Then and only then can a fact-based discussion begin. The recent IPCC 5AR (5th Assessment Report) clearly indicates that real policy discussions are needed as soon as possible."
Dr. Sandra Steingraber offered the following comments on the EDF study:
"My two main critiques of the EDF study are these:
"1) All the wells monitored in this study are new ones. And yet we know from Pennsylvania data that leakage rates increase with time. Even absent catastrophic disasters, the cement well casings are not immortal. Cement crumbles, cracks and shrinks as it ages. A 0.45 percent methane leak will not stay a 0.45 percent methane leak as the years and decades go by. Is it possible that, with fracking, we are laying in the ground climate time bombs with long fuses?  That's a key question.  And the EDF study does not attempt to address it.
"2) When burned, natural gas still makes carbon dioxide, and even though its does so at levels less than coal, it still does so at levels sufficient to wreck the climate.  An energy revolution that swaps out coal for natural gas is still going to hurdle us over the climate cliff because natural gas is not better enough than coal to save us from catastrophe. So, why are we even having this debate?  Even if EDF numbers on methane leaks are typical of well sites, we are distracting ourselves by arguing about how many molecules of methane can dance on the head of a pin.
"Consider the drunk who finally realizes he's going to die if he keeps on drinking.  The cumulative impact of a lifetime of alcohol consumption has already damaged his liver, says the doctor.  He could choose to go to Alcoholics Anonymous.  Or he could decide to switch from drinking whiskey to drinking wine. Fracking represents the latter choice, and it's a delusional one. We can't frack our way to climate sobriety. And if fracking can't solve our problem, there is no point at all in directing our investment dollars toward it.
"Of course, fracking brings with it many other problems: water contamination and air pollution--and all the public-health effects that go with them--are two big ones. But the EDF study wasn't designed to look at all that--for better or for worse. I'm always hesitant to criticize a study for not investigating something else.
"The results of the study itself, narrowly focused as they are, border on irrelevancy and don't reveal to us the sum total of the disaster that is fracking or the cumulative impacts for our climate.
"The even larger issue, in my mind, is why environmental organizations like EDF (and especially EDF) somehow now believe that it is their job to regulate every monstrous idea that the oil-and-gas industry--and the chemical industry that is its subsidiary--comes up with?
"It's a defeatist mindset and, for many of these organizations, appears to fly in the face of their own mission statements.  Environmental Defense Fund's mission is 'to preserve the natural systems on which all of life depends.' It's an organization began in the 1960s with courageous and noble intentions.  Correctly recognizing the pesticide DDT as an inherently dangerous, unregulate-able molecule, EDF set out to ban it.  And it did.  In those days,  EDF was not afraid to take an abolitionist stance.  How far this organization has fallen.  The current EDF would likely partner with pesticide companies to measure DDT drift from crop dusters and encourage home owners to cover their bird baths.  
"What we have with fossil fuels is a problem of bad design. Shoveling fossil fuels into ovens and lighting them on fire--whether they are gaseous vapors, oily liquids or lumps of coal--is a brutal, inherently polluting, climate-destroying, primitive technology. We need a whole new redesign based on wind, water, and solar power. That technology exists and is deployable. Hence, the only moral choice, in my mind, is to advocate for renewables and dismantle the fossil-fuel industry as soon as possible. Any environmental organization that is ministering to the public relations needs of the fossil-fuel industry in the name of political realism is not being realistic about the dire situation of our climate system and is getting in the way of creating a new reality." 
For additional information on the issue of fracking see:
Gasland parts I and II by Josh Fox
The Sierra Club
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
Americans Against Fracking
Huffington Post Fracking Page
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Following a serious injury, Jerry was inspired to rededicate his life to working on environmental issues full time. Drawing on his experience in the jewelry industry and jewelry design, in 2006 Jerry began developing eco-friendly sustainable (more...)
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