Keeping an Important Methane Research Question in Proper Perspective

 

By Mark Brownstein and Steve Hamburg

An organization in North Carolina this week asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to examine questions about the accuracy of measurements from a device used in two of the large and growing list of studies published in recent years quantifying the enormous amounts of methane released into the atmosphere by the U.S. oil and gas industry each year.

That long list of studies is a major reason why EPA recently increased its official estimates of industry emissions by 34 percent, and why the agency is pursuing new rules to start fixing the problem.  In fact oil and gas methane emissions have moved from obscurity to center stage with remarkable speed, thanks to rush of compelling data.

The particular papers at issue were written by a team of scientists led by Dr. David Allen of the University of Texas. They are among of a group of studies on oil and gas industry methane emissions organized and coordinated by EDF. Possible complications involving a piece of sampling equipment (among several that were used) have been discussed by researchers in both academic literature and the news media for more than a year. You can read the blog that EDF wrote on it back in 2015 here.

Small Parts of a Vast Body of Research

The most important thing to understand is just how much new research has been produced on oil and gas methane emissions in just the past three years. EDF alone has organized 16 different research projects looking at emissions from on the ground and in the air. So far 27 peer-reviewed papers have been published on those projects, with at least nine more in the works. More than 35 different research institutions and over 120 individual co-authors have been involved in the work published to date.

That’s nothing to sneeze it. In fact, it’s completely unprecedented.

It’s true that a handful of these papers have found emissions that were lower than previous estimates – often due to new or pending regulations – or cases where improved operating practices were working. But overall, the studies paint a clear picture of a significant problem that had been largely overlooked or ignored for years – and one that is much larger than either industry or government had previously recognized.

Moreover, other studies using entirely different methods and measurement technologies broadly support Allen’s findings. Indeed, one of the strengths of the combined body of research using diverse methodologies is that it provides an extremely robust set of mutually reinforcing results.

Open and Honest Science

As we said more than year ago, EDF is pleased to see the methane work that we’ve sponsored receiving rigorous scrutiny by the research community, and we are equally pleased that the lead researchers we’ve chosen to work with are taking these critiques seriously and are taking the necessary steps to recheck their work. We believe good environmental policy begins with good science. The scientific process is working here precisely as it should.

As always, EDF welcomes – and indeed, we encourage – honest and open review of any science we’re involved with, including these two papers. But the overall impact of the questions raised on national methane emissions rates is limited. It’s important not to overestimate their individual significance in vast catalog of studies published in the two-and-a-half years since Dr. Allen’s first study was released.

It is clear that methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are too high – higher than EPA originally or currently estimates, and that strong regulations are necessary to reduce them.  Fortunately, research has also shown just how effective these solutions can be when properly implemented. We look forward to continuing to work with the federal government, the states and other stakeholders to reduce harmful methane emissions.

 

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