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Is Fracking Getting Greener?

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has just revised its estimate of the amount of greenhouse gas that leaks everyday in oil and gas drilling fields.  The EPA says that as much as 20 percent less methane gas is leaking from drilling operations than it had previously thought.  The announcement comes as good news for the oil and gas industry and is an acknowledgement, says David Ludlam, of big strides in engineering.

“The technology used in Western Colorado natural gas drilling operations is really and literally on par with modern rocket science in terms of its complexity and some of its astonishing achievements.”

Ludlam is Executive Director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

“And while lots of focus has been placed on those technological advancements very little emphasis has followed the pollution control technology that has advanced at really the same rate.”

The EPA’s statistical revision is massive.  The report covers estimated leakage of methane gas from drilling operations across North America over a twenty-year period starting in 1990.   Crediting improvements in pollution controls, the EPA now says that it overestimated the amount of leaked methane by 850 million metric tons.  For some perspective that’s roughly equal to the carbon dioxide emissions from burning 76 million railroad cars of coal.   In the twenty years covered by the report, David Ludlam says all manner of technologies have improved.

“The types of things you’re looking at are improvements in valves and better combustors, they have better ways that they offload natural gas liquids.  Things like those are the actual infield mechanisms that help and have advanced in recent years”

Still, not everyone remains convinced that the EPA has it right.  The authors of a forthcoming study on oil field leaks in Western Colorado believe much more methane is seeping into the atmosphere from gas drilling.  The study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office in Boulder looked at well fields in Utah.  One of the problems they cite is that EPA uses estimates instead of actual measured leaks.  At the Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale, Conservation Advocate Will Roush is also concerned about the EPA estimate.

Every molecule of methane that doesnt go into heating someones home or generating electricity is a molecule wasted.

“The first thing that jumped out to me was that the EPA is basing its estimates on the technology they think is being used by the industry but, they’re not basing it on the actual leakage coming out of everything from wells to pipelines to distribution lines to a power plant or a bus that might burn the natural gas.”

Roush calls the revised figures an update on the technology that EPA believes is in use.  The larger issue he says is that natural gas should not be seen as a cleaner alternative to coal or oil.  Natural gas is sometimes promoted as a bridge energy source between fossil fuels and renewables.

“I’m very wary of that term because there is no timetable or plan to wind down that production of natural gas and transfer to renewables.”

The only way to truly reduce the effect on global climate , he says, is to fully transition to renewable energy sources like wind and solar.  Because methane is such a powerful greenhouse gas even it the 20 percent leakage reduction is true it is still too much.

“And so even a little bit of leakage out of a pipeline will have a big climate impact.  So, you have to get that leakage rate down to almost zero to realize any climate benefits over other fossil fuels.”

At the West Slope Oil and Gas Association, David Ludlam says preventing methane leakage will only get better over time.  He cites increased regulation standards governing drilling and distribution and the industry’s own desire for efficiency.

“One of the incentives for doing that is the environmental improvements.  But, also you need to consider that.  So, companies have an incentive to capture every molecule they can.”  REPORTER: “In other words, any gas leakage is a loss in profit?”  “That’s right.”

The journal Nature recently reported the preliminary findings of the study in Boulder.  And, now several additional studies of methane leakage are underway that might shed more light on the EPA’s new estimates.   A Cornell professor who led a study in 2011 told the Associated Press that time will tell where the truth lies.