NY Times' Joe Nocera Overlooks Key Flaws in EDF Fracking Climate Change Study

Yesterday, New York Times' columnist Joe Nocera weighed in on the study by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and University of Texas-Austin (UT-Austin) on the climate change impacts of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”)DeSmogBlog got a special mention in Nocera's op-ed titled, “A Fracking Rorschach Test.” 

Nocera praised UT-Austin Professor David Allen and colleagues for obtaining what he claimed was “unassailable data” on fugitive methane emissions and fracking's climate change impact potential. 

“The reason the Environmental Defense Fund wanted this study done is precisely so that unassailable data, rather than mere estimates, could become part of the debate over fracking,” wrote Nocera. “You can’t have sound regulation without good data.”

Missing from Nocera's praise: new findings by the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change in their latest comprehensive review of the climate crisis.

IPCC revealed “over a 20-year time frame, methane has a global warming potential 86 [times the amount of] CO2, up from its previous estimate of 72 [times],” as explained by Climate Progress' Joe Romm.

In juxtaposition, Nocera dismissed DeSmog's criticisms of the study - one we referred to as “frackademia.” 

Simplifying the crux of my 3,000-word DeSmog critique and the 800-word follow-up as “because the nine companies involved had both cooperated and helped pay for it,” Nocera then rhetorically asks “why a study that necessitated industry cooperation and money is inherently less valid than a study produced by scientists who are openly opposed to fracking was left unanswered.”

The answer: the scientists “openly opposed to fracking” whom he points to, Cornell University's Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea - authors of the first major academic study documenting fracking's climate change impacts published in April 2011 - are not the only ones who have pointed to fracking's climate change perils. 

Further, DeSmog's critiques of the EDF/UT-Austin study run far deeper than oil industry funding and conflicts of interest alone.

Recent Study: “Alarming High,” Findings Sans Industry Collaboration 

Nocera - a self-described fracking supporter - overlooked a key study published in early August by 19 researchers primarily from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado.

Key differences between the EDF-Austin study and the NOAA-Colorado study exist not only in the methodologies and the people and money behind the studies, but also in the accompanying results.

Uintah Basin Gas Wells; Image Credit: Google Earth

“The team determined that methane emissions from the oil and natural gas fields in Uintah County totaled about 55,000 kg (more than 120,000 lbs) an hour on the day of the flight,” a press release on the NOAA-University of Colorado study explained. “That emission rate is about 6 to 12 percent of the average hourly natural gas production in Uintah County during the month of February.” 

Unitah Basin fly-over; Photo Credit: NOAA/University of Colorado

EDF/UT-Austin found fugitive methane emissions rates at a scant .42-percent, far lower than the NOAA/University of Colorado study and 2-4% lower than the Cornell University study.

Like the EDF/UT-Austin study, the researchers did receive industry funding from the industry-funded Western Energy Alliance. Unlike the EDF/UT-Austin study, the samples taken did not require industry compliance because the researchers took them via 11 fly-overs of well production sites.

When the NOAA-Colorado study was released, EDF called the results “alarmingly high.”

Green Completions vs. Representative Sample: No “Super Emitters” Included

While the NOAA/University of Colorado study analyzed samples across an entire shale gas basin in Utah, the EDF/UT-Austin study honed in on well completion sites that the industry calls “green completions.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will not mandate these completions until 2015, so they are not representative of the industry's performance at the moment. 

“In the past, a well's initial production was typically vented or burned off to allow impurities to clear before the well was tied into a pipeline,” explained The Philidelphia Inquirer

“Now, more operators are employing reduced-emission completions - a 'green completion; - a process in which impurities such as sand, drilling debris, and fluids from hydraulic fracturing are filtered out and the gas is sold, not wasted.”

Thus, while important measurements, the EDF/UT-Austin study - hailed as “unprecedented measurements” in a UT-Austin press release - neglected to measure any of the “super emitters,” as Climate Progress' Joe Romm pointed out.

“The 0.42 percent is the average of a bunch of good actors but not necessarily representative of the real world,” explained NOAA's Colm Sweeney, one of the Unitah Basin study co-authors, in an interview with EnergyWire. “The super-emitters are lost in a study released this week by scientists at the University of Texas, Austin, and the Environmental Defense Fund.”

Colm Sweeney; Photo Credit: NOAA

In Howarth's original critiques of the study cited here on DeSmog, he echoed Sweeney. 

“First, this study is based only on evaluation of sites and times chosen by industry,” wrote Howarth

“The Environmental Defense Fund over the past year has repeatedly stated that only by working with industry could they and the Allen et al. team have access necessary to make their measurements. So this study must be viewed as a best-case scenario.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. - Chief Prosecuting Attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance and a Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council - sang a similar chorus about the study in a recent interview with National Public Radio's “Stateimpact Pennsylvania.”

Photo Credit: Daniel SchwenWikimedia Commons

”[EDF/Austin] studied wells that were experimenting with new technologies that are not industry-wide and not required for the industry to see if they could reduce methane rates, and indeed the rates were lower,” Kennedy stated.

Did Fracking Industry 'Partners' Guide EDF's Flawed Methodology?

Unexplored by Nocera - and still unanswered by journalists and researchers: whether the people and money behind the EDF/UT-Austin study and Steering Committee pushed the study in a direction that would produce industry-friendly results.

DeSmogBlog has filed a FOIA request with UT-Austin to find out what type of industry influence existed for the EDF/UT-Austin study, requesting all communications between the industry-stacked Steering Committee and UT-Austin faculty and staff. 

Yet, the biggest takeaway from the EDF/UT-Austin study - despite efforts by industry front groups and lobbyists to assert it as definitive - is that fracking is proceeding at breakneck speed regardless of the still unknown and daunting scope of all the threats that unconventional oil and gas drilling poses to human health, ecosystems and the climate.

Bottom Line: Too Many Unanswered Questions to Allow Reckless Fracking

DeSmogBlog stands by the concluding recommendations in our 2011 report “Fracking the Future,” and would like to know which aspects of this position are objectionable to Mr. Nocera and others who are promoting the EDF/Austin study: 

  • A national moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for unconventional gas until independent scientific studies are conducted to verify that fracking is not responsible for adverse outcomes on drinking water, public health and the global climate.
  • The federal government, not the states, should strictly oversee setting and enforcing standards for unconventional gas drilling. Federal oversight of the unconventional gas industry is critical, since the states have not demonstrated the capacity to hold drillers accountable for contamination of water supplies, growing air pollution problems and the potentially devastating climate change implications of fugitive methane and other emissions. Federal agencies should employ existing federal statutes that don’t currently apply to gas drilling, and review the need for any new standards necessary to protect public health and the environment.
  • Greater scrutiny is needed on common drilling practices such as cementing procedures, wastewater handling and storage of harmful drilling chemicals.
  • Congress and federal agency officials must immediately require mandatory industry reporting of lifecycle emissions of gas drilling operations to ensure relevant and reliable information is accessible to the public, especially independent experts.
  • They must also require mandatory disclosure of fracking fluid chemicals, including the exact chemical recipes used in each operation.

As we concluded in our report, “uncertainties about the extent of methane emissions and leakage from drilling operations, storage tanks and pipelines carrying gas” remain a critical issue for scientists to assess. Without mandatory federal policy requiring industry disclosure of life-cycle methane leakage, we are all left in the dark about the true risks of the fracking boom.

Photo Credit: Doc Searls | Wikimedia Commons


Steve, I’d like to clarify a few items in your latest post. 

As to whether the unprecedented access granted by study participants somehow “pushed the study in a direction that would produce industry-friendly results,” that is demonstrably not the case. The University of Texas study team retained complete control over the content of the paper. The study team decided where and when it wanted to test sites based on its own study criteria; it was not specifically honing in on wells using green completions. Companies made available all sites that satisfied the study team’s criteria and did not cherry pick. While the majority (though not all) of wells tested did indeed use green completions, the technologies’ demonstrated effectiveness only reinforces the notion that the environment will benefit by having green completions deployed nationwide, and that industry has reason to be using the technology to prevent a loss of product even as new regulations are coming online.

We have pushed back, and will continue to push back, against industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the Americans for Tax Reform who try to argue that the study is definitive proof that methane leakage is nothing to worry about. We all know that’s not the case. 

You point to discrepancies between the Uintah Basin measurements and the UT study as an indication of bad methodologies, or a conflict of interest. As we’ve previously written, the Uintah study was based on measurements taken from a single basin via airplane, and measured emissions from gathering, processing, and other various ancillary activities taking place in the basin – with no way to attribute the high emissions among these various elements of the natural gas system. The UT study reports data based on emissions from diverse regions, collected at the equipment source, from natural gas production – the first step along the natural gas supply chain. It’s not surprising that the two studies found noticeably different measurements – they weren’t measuring the same thing. Neither study invalidates the other (unless, maybe, your Rorschach test finds you preferring one study over the other.) 

When I test new equipment at an oil rig.  I get a biased crew. i.e. one that tolerate my presence and take it easy if I problems.  Even if you get around Westinghouse effect its hard to imagine an oil company choosing a rig or site without bias.

The very language you guys use in your videos STINKS of greenwash.  Its the first thing I noticed when I heard the words coming from your team's own mouths.

You folks should be ashamed of yourself for propping up this sham.

I'll believe your data when a real expert verifies it.  Right now I consider it industry propaganda.

By the way, I notice that very very few of your EDF team have comments that appear in columnists that are antagonistic to the environment.  You know the ones.. the guys who say natural gas is already AOK and no need to change anything. I guess its OK if they make mistakes, but anything negative from Steve is bad?  It seems you are more worried about greenwashing efforts than about facts.

It's also worth mentioning that more than a year ago, EDF funded extensive studies by the same team of scientists that reported the Uintah results. We believe that the bottom-up approach reported by the University of Texas in PNAS in September and the top-down approach deployed by the NOAA researchers provide complimentary perspectives.  We are also working with a large number of researchers to understand the differences among the several approaches to measuring methane emissions rates that are currently being deployed in a coordinated effort being carried out later this month.