The Methane Myth


Incompetence and overreach at the EPA.

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2012

As a Republican attorney general from a southern state, my views on energy policy might be discounted as a simple ploy to bolster the energy industry at the expense of environmental stewardship and responsibility. That perspective would be misguided. I do strongly support energy producers and their role in the nation’s economic sustainability, but this issue isn’t about oil. Nor is it about natural gas or hydraulic fracturing. This is about a wayward federal agency arbitrarily using unsubstantiated, inaccurate, and flawed data to achieve a specific policy objective.

Oklahoma has been forced to battle the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its leaders’ quest to fashion facts to fit their agenda on numerous fronts. This is another attack we can’t ignore.

Recently, I hosted a roundtable discussion on critical energy issues facing Oklahoma and our nation. I found one statement to be unbelievable: The EPA unexpectedly shifted its method for calculating methane “escape” from natural gas wells, using flawed data that helps the agency achieve its end. A new methodology isn’t a problem if the change is instituted simply to update methods based on new technology or available science. But that’s not what happened here.

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The EPA, led by an entrepreneurial administrator, created a new method for calculating the amount of methane gas based on questionable assumptions about how the energy industry works. The agency decided to use Natural Gas STAR data to calculate emissions released into the atmosphere at conventional natural gas wells. It also applied this new method for the first time to unconventional wells used in hydraulic fracturing.

The EPA’s problem is STAR data doesn’t measure methane escaping from wells into the atmosphere. Rather, the data measures methane returned to the surface through drilling or flowback. Most of this methane is recaptured by the well operator to sell with the rest of the natural gas, or if it isn’t marketable, it’s burned through approved flaring. The methane isn’t vented into the atmosphere as the EPA claims. Dumping that level of greenhouse gas into the air wouldn’t make environmental sense—and it wouldn’t make much business sense either, since it would lead to annual losses of $305 million for one energy company alone.

This misstep or deception by the EPA has resulted in new figures that are faulty, unreasonable and based on a distorted understanding of how gas drilling operates.

‘Pretty Lousy’ Data

Unfortunately, the flawed data was further perpetrated by authors of a study on methane emissions at unconventional natural gas wells. (See “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations,” Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea (Cornell University), Climatic Change Letters, accepted March 13, 2011).

The authors used the new EPA methodology to measure methane emissions from some of the same small group of wells used by the EPA, not surprisingly with similar outcomes.

Fortunately, the authors were honest about the quality of their data, calling it “really low,” “pretty lousy,” and “questionable.” Unfortunately, the EPA used it anyway.

And the faulty nature of the data hasn’t stopped opponents of hydraulic fracturing or natural gas exploration from using the new numbers to create fear and anxiety about health or environmental risks of energy producers drilling through shale beneath residential property. I suspect the true impetus behind the EPA’s change is to rationalize new and unjustified federal regulations to solve a nonexistent methane-emissions problem.

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The agency’s actions are at best incompetent, and at worst reprehensible. They have a very real effect on families, businesses, communities, and state economies. Without justification, they erode the states’ ability to self-regulate, and they stifle exploration of domestic energy sources, putting our national energy security at risk.

This latest debacle is among the growing list of chaotic rulemaking processes being undertaken by the EPA. (See “Regulatory Gordian Knot.”) If we can’t trust the EPA on this issue, how can we trust its leaders on other data and topics vital to our well-being? What stops them from coming after another industry with faulty numbers to bolster their cause?

As a result, I have sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, requesting additional information on the methodology employed by the EPA, and suggesting that the EPA’s methods be revisited and revised. It’s clear that President Obama recognizes overreach by his own agency heads, and we call on him to investigate and stop this erroneous process.

I have forwarded my concerns to all attorneys general, urging them to look into this situation in their states, and to consider sharing their concerns with Administrator Jackson to ensure the EPA is making regulatory decisions based on sound science and data, especially when those decisions directly affect state regulatory primacy.