National Academies of Science Study: Fracking Captures 99 Percent of Methane

Published November 1, 2013

Containment measures employed by energy production companies capture 99 percent of the methane released by natural gas fracking operations, scientists report in a peer-reviewed study published by the National Academy of Sciences. The study contradicts environmental activist assertions that methane releases during fracking operations negate the substantial reductions in pollutants and carbon dioxide emissions resulting from natural gas-fired electricity. 

Nearly All Methane Captured
A team of scientists from the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, the University of California at Berkeley, Arizona State University, Washington State University, and other research institutions measured methane releases at more than 500 natural gas wells at 190 natural gas sites in the United States. The scientists reported merely 1 percent of the methane dislodged by fracking operations escaped emissions containment equipment.

Environmental activist groups have claimed 8 percent or more of methane escapes containment equipment. Atmospheric methane is much more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Although natural gas power plants emit merely half as much carbon dioxide as coal power, methane containment equipment at fracking sites must capture at least 96 percent of potential methane releases to reduce net warming versus coal power.

Environmental Activists Participated
David T. Allen, professor and Melvin H. Gertz Regents Chair in chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, led the team of scientists conducting the study. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and several natural gas companies teamed to fund the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“The companies, Environmental Defense Fund, and a panel of six independent scientific advisors (all university faculty from institutions other than the University of Texas) were all involved in study design, sampling protocol development, data analysis, and review of reporting documents,” Allen told Environment & Climate News in an email.

“In analyzing and interpreting measurements, the companies often had detailed technical understanding of the operations that helped inform the data analysis,” Allen reported. “While the companies provided input at all stages of the study, it is important to note that all of this input was provided with parallel input from Environmental Defense Fund and the Scientific Advisory Panel. In addition, the material published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences went through the peer review process for that journal.

“We made measurements of emissions from a variety of sources,” Allen noted. “For completion flowbacks, we found that reduced emission completion equipment reduced emissions by an average of 99 percent.”

Methane Issue Fading
Merrill Matthews, a resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation, says methane leaks are more of a public relations issue than an environmental problem.

“I suspect in the near future the industry will, for all intents and purposes, solve the problem” of methane leaks, said Matthews.

Reduced Emissions at Affordable Prices
Matthews said new fracking technologies allow energy producers to provide more affordable electricity while simultaneously reducing pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Fracking and horizontal drilling have greatly reduced the price of natural gas, [though] less so for oil. By making natural gas so abundant and affordable, renewables have been priced out of the market, which means it needs even greater tax subsidies to survive,” he said.

Josiah Neeley, a policy analyst at the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said the EDF funding of the study shows environmental critics are not necessarily a monolithic group. Although some environmental activist groups have no interest in scientific inquiry, others are at least open to scientific research, said Neeley.

“There is some diversity within their ranks. There are the true believers that don’t want anyone to burn any fossil fuels, and then there are the ones that don’t mind, just as long as it’s not in their neighborhood,” Neeley added.

“I’m always hesitant to predict the future, but fracking and horizontal drilling are here and they’re already making the future pretty bright. It’s a political question: Will we allow emerging technology to develop this energy?” he asked.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.