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High-Level EPA Adviser Accused of Scientific Fraud in Methane Leak Research

It's one of the highest-stakes debates in the battle over climate change policy action: how much methane is spewing from oil and gas sites nationwide, and what do we do as a result? If enough of the odorless, colorless methane gas leaks or is vented into the air, scientists say, then burning natural gas — marketed as a green fuel that can help wean the U.S. off of high-carbon fuels — will actually be worse for the climate than coal, long seen as the fuel that contributes the most to global warming.

Recently, over 100 community and environmental groups sent a letter urging the Environmental Protection Agency's internal watchdog to investigate claims that a top methane researcher had committed scientific fraud and charging that he had made false and misleading statements to the press in response to those claims.

Earlier this month, NC WARN, an environmental group, presented the EPA Inspector General with evidence it said showed that key research on methane leaks was tainted, and that one of the EPA's top scientific advisors fraudulently concealed evidence that a commonly-used tool for collecting data from oil and gas wells gives artificially low methane measurements.

High Levels of Chemicals Found in People Living Near Gas Wells: New Report

Chemicals from gas wells were discovered in biological samples drawn from residents of Pavillion, Wyoming, at levels as much as ten times the national averages, according to a new report. The study is the first to sample both the air near drilling sites and the levels of chemicals in people living and working near those wells, allowing researchers to study the ways that toxic air pollutants are entering people's bodies near gas wells and putting their health at risk.

The researchers found evidence of 16 potentially dangerous chemicals in 11 individuals who volunteered to participate in the study by wearing air monitors and providing blood and urine samples. They found benzene, toluene, 2-heptanone, 4 heptanone and evidence of roughly a dozen other substances — including some known to be quite dangerous and others for which little safety information is available.

Fracking Pollution Raising the Earth's Levels of Ethane, Bakken Oilfield Is Largely to Blame

The Bakken shale oilfield is single-handedly responsible for most of a mysterious global rise in atmospheric ethane — a pollutant that can harm human health and heat the atmosphere further — peer-reviewed research published last week reveals.

The Bakken, which stretches from North Dakota and Montana into Canada, has made headlines over the past decade for its sudden drilling boom (and an equally sudden job market bust as oil prices have plunged over the past year).

But while the drilling boom made North Dakota the nation's second largest oil-producing state, the amount of hydrocarbons leaking and being deliberately vented from the oil field may have been enough to alter the composition of the Earth's atmosphere slightly, reversing a long-running decline in ethane levels worldwide.

New Federal Fracking Rules Rely on FracFocus Even as EPA Research Highlights Site's Flaws

It's a classic case of the government's left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. Days after the Bureau of Land Management issued new federal rules for fracking on federal land, relying heavily on an industry-run site called FracFocus, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a study mainly noteworthy for the shortcomings of the site that it revealed.

More than 70 percent of the chemical disclosure statements that drillers posted on FracFocus between January 2011 and February 2013 were missing key information because drillers labeled that data “confidential business information,” the EPA reported.

On average, drillers reported using a mix of 14 different chemicals at each well site. At sites where information was withheld, an average of five chemicals were not named.

In fact, FracFocus allowed drillers to conceal the identity of more than one out of every ten chemicals whose use was “disclosed” on the site, EPA researchers found.

This made it impossible for EPA's researchers, who received over 39,000 disclosure statements from FracFocus in March 2013 and published their study two years later, to definitively say what chemicals drillers used most often, how much of each chemical was injected underground, or even to simply create a list of all the chemicals used at the wells.

Internal Documents Reveal Extensive Industry Influence Over EPA's National Fracking Study

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched an ambitious and highly consequential study of the risks that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, poses to American drinking water supplies.

This is about using the best possible science to do what the American people expect the EPA to do – ensure that the health of their communities and families are protected,” Paul Anastas, Assistant Administrator for the agency's Office of Research and Development, said in 2011.

But the EPA's study has been largely shaped and re-shaped by the very industry it is supposed to investigate, as energy company officials were allowed to edit planning documents, insisted on vetting agency contractors, and demanded to review federal scientist's field notes, photographs and laboratory results prior to publication, according to a review by DeSmog of over 3,000 pages of previously undisclosed emails, confidential draft study plans and other internal documents obtained through open records requests.

Company officials imposed demands so infeasible that the EPA ultimately dropped a key goal of the research, their plans to measure pollution levels before and after fracking at two new well sites, the documents show.

All told, the documents raise serious questions about the study's credibility and they highlight a certain coziness between the EPA and Chesapeake Energy, one of the most aggressive oil and gas companies in the shale gas rush.

“[Y]ou guys are part of the team here,” one EPA representative wrote to Chesapeake Energy as they together edited study planning documents in October 2013, “please write things in as you see fit”.

Chesapeake took them up on the offer.

Study Finds Methane Leaks 1,000 Times EPA Estimates During Marcellus Drilling

This week, a United Nations panel on climate change issued one of its most urgent warnings to date, explaining that unless major changes to greenhouse gas emissions are made within the next few years, it will become extraordinarily difficult to ward off the worst impacts of climate change.

We cannot afford to lose another decade,” Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist and co-chairman of the committee, told The New York Times

With the time to cut emissions running out, the Obama administration has seized upon the hope that greenhouse gasses can be cut dramatically by switching from coal to natural gas, because gas gives off half as much carbon dioxide as coal when it’s burned. Indeed, when the EPA published its annual greenhouse gas inventory this Tuesday, it credited a switch from coal to natural gas with helping to cut carbon emissions nationwide.

But a new scientific paper, also published Tuesday in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, further upends the notion that the current shale gas drilling rush is truly helping the U.S. cut its total greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, the evidence suggests, the Obama administration has understated the full climate impacts of natural gas, focusing too much on only carbon dioxide and failing to take into account another key greenhouse gas: methane.

The paper, the first to directly measure methane plumes above natural gas drilling sites in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale, recorded methane leaks far more powerful than EPA estimates. Methane is especially important because its global warming effects are at their strongest during the first 20 years after it enters the atmosphere — in other words, during the small window of time identified as crucial by the U.N.’s climate panel.

New Study Shows Total North American Methane Leaks Far Worse than EPA Estimates

Just how bad is natural gas for the climate?

A lot worse than previously thought, new research on methane leaks concludes.

Far more natural gas is leaking into the atmosphere nationwide than the Environmental Protection Agency currently estimates, researchers concluded after reviewing more than 200 different studies of natural gas leaks across North America.

The ground-breaking study, published today in the prestigious journal Science, reports that the Environmental Protection Agency has understated how much methane leaks into the atmosphere nationwide by between 25 and 75 percent — meaning that the fuel is far more dangerous for the climate than the Obama administration asserts.

The study, titled “Methane Leakage from North American Natural Gas Systems,” was conducted by a team of 16 researchers from institutions including Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and is making headlines because it finally and definitively shows that natural gas production and development can make natural gas worse than other fossil fuels for the climate.

The research, which was reported in The Washington Post, Bloomberg and The New York Times, was funded by a foundation created by the late George P. Mitchell, the wildcatter who first successfully drilled shale gas, so it would be hard to dismiss it as the work of environmentalists hell-bent on discrediting the oil and gas industry.

With Congress Back to Work, Republican Attacks On EPA Resume

Fresh off the August recess, the United States Congress got back to business today.  Rather than focusing on pressing issues like a potential war, looming budget deadlines, and the growing problem of student loan debt, some Republican lawmakers thought it was the perfect time to pick up where they left off before their recess – attacking the Environmental Protection Agency.

Texas Republican Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, is enraged that the EPA is not “complying” with a subpoena that his committee issued, requiring the agency to hand over all documents and studies relating to standards issued by the EPA

According to Smith, this information is vital for the public, as the safety standards that it spurs cost the public “trillions of dollars,” he wrote in a letter to the EPA.  Smith never specifies how he came up with that figure, and research shows that regulations put in place by the EPA actually save taxpayers much more money than they cost.  Smith’s letter has given the agency until September 16th to hand over the documents.

Canadian Scientists Must Speak Out Despite Consequence, Says Andrew Weaver

If people don’t speak out there will never be any change,” says the University of Victoria’s award-winning climate scientist Andrew Weaver. 

And the need for change in Canada, says Weaver, has never been more pressing.

“We have a crisis in Canada. That crisis is in terms of the development of information and the need for science to inform decision-making. We have replaced that with an ideological approach to decision-making, the selective use of whatever can be found to justify [policy decisions], and the suppression of scientific voices and science itself in terms of informing the development of that policy.”
 

Retreat from Science: Interview with Federal Scientist Peter Ross Part 2 of 2

On April 1, 2013 Canada will lose its sole marine contaminants research program. The loss comes as a part of a massive dismantling of science programs at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced in May of 2012. 

Peter Ross, lead researcher at Vancouver Island’s Institute for Ocean Sciences, is a recent casualty of the sweeping science cuts moving across the country.
 
In this second installment of DeSmog Canada’s interview with Ross, he discusses the importance of the scientific method as a bulwark against bias in policy-making, the danger of industrial pollutants in marine habitats, and what killer whales can tell us about our society.

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