Mixed Results in New UT Study on Fracking, Methane Emissions [Watch]

If there’s any scientific subject today more fraught than hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, we’ve yet to hear of it. The controversial drilling practice is hailed by industry leaders as key to the nation’s energy future, while environmentalists argue that it’s contaminating the planet.

Getting clear answers on such a deeply politicized topic has proven elusive for all involved, but now a new UT study is trying to do just that.

The study on methane emissions—published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—is unusual because it included stakeholders on all sides of the hotly debated issue: academic researchers as well as nine energy companies, the Environmental Defense fund, and an independent scientific advisory panel.

“It’s not every day you’re able to bring together this level of collaboration between an environmental group, an academic institution like UT, and these energy companies,” says Drew Nelson, manager of special projects at the Environmental Defense Fund and one of the study’s coordinators.

A greenhouse gas, methane is the primary component of natural gas. The goal of the study—headed up by Cockrell School of Engineering professor David Allen—was to determine how much methane is released into the atmosphere during fracking. While previous research relied on indirect measurements, often gathered by planes flying over drill sites, in this study researchers took measurements directly from wells. A special infrared camera allowed scientists to see exactly where methane leaks occur. The researchers wanted to verify Environmental Protection Agency estimates of how much methane is released and when.

Their findings: the total quantity of methane released is roughly the same as expected, but our understanding of when during the drilling process most emissions occur may need to change.

“While the overall emissions are basically in line between EPA estimates and the study, the distribution of those emissions is very different,” Nelson explains. “EPA estimates are that completions are much higher and surface emissions are much lower. Dr. Allen’s results are actually the opposite.”

From the Environmental Defense Fund’s perspective, Nelson says, the study is evidence that current regulations are working and that there’s still more progress to be made.

“The study shows there are still plenty of opportunities to reduce methane emissions even further,” Nelson says. “And every molecule of methane that goes into the atmosphere is not only a molecule that will add to climate change, but it’s also a lost profit for the companies.”

Perhaps predictably when it comes to fracking, the study is not without its critics. Cornell researcher Anthony Ingraffea called it “fatally flawed,” while Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, told the Los Angeles Times it was “more spin than science.”

Nelson says those criticisms are unfair. “[Ingraffea] said the study is incomplete because it just looks at production, and I don’t think that’s a flaw. We’ve never maintained otherwise,” he says. “So to criticize the study for being incomplete when we’ve been very clear this is one of a number of studies, and that more research is needed and ongoing, is not a fair criticism.”

In a video by the Cockrell School of Engineering (ab0ve), Allen says, “The study can act as a compass to direct us toward the types of reduction activities that will yield the greatest benefit.”

Video produced by the Cockrell School of Engineering.


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