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On environmentalism and ‘frackademia’

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It’s sad that the biggest takeaway from the UT Austin/Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) study on methane emissions from upstream shale gas production has been the involvement of industry. The discussion is now how much influence oil & gas companies wielded over scientists; chasing bogeyman instead of learning from the data. This is unfortunate because there is actually a lot of important information in the study that will inform public policy for years to come.

My read on the study is that it's sound science and effective. Let’s unpack what the UT/EDF actually reports and then return to the criticism.

  1. Two-thirds of wells studied had what’s called “green completion” technology installed. This tech captures methane that comes up with water after shale rock is fractured. Without this tech methane gas would escape to the atmosphere. For the wells with green completion tech, 99% percent of methane was captured.

    This is the same technology that will be required when the US EPA’s new source performance standards go into effect in 2015 and it’s good to have data about how effective this regulation can be when implemented.

  2. Methane leakage from pumps and compressors is 30% higher than current EPA estimates. Presumably these data can be used to either improve regulations or improve industry practices. The point is that we have actual field data for this process instead of engineering estimates.
  3. The overall measured leakage rate (0.42%) track with EPA’s own estimates (0.53%). This is a good barometer. The higher pump leakage offsets gains from the wellhead. Good to know.
  4. This is not a full on lifecycle analysis. This is one of 16 studies looking at each stage of shale gas production.

Most of the criticism I have read focuses on industry involvement with the study. Steve Horn at DeSmogBlog dismisses the study as “another case of "frackademia" or industry-funded 'science' dressed up to look like objective academic analysis.”

The thinking is that because industry partners provided funding and access to scientists that they wielded control over the study’s results. I disagree. EDF has been clear with its decision to work with major oil and gas producers: it needs access to these facilities for measurements. I also think it’s in the interest of oil and gas companies to have objective data about fracking in the public sphere.

Could UT Austin have done a better job at disclosing potential conflicts of interest? Probably. Does that discredit the study? I don’t think so.

I'm not as quick to pull the trigger on drawing conclusions on whether a study was tainted by money or not based on people's affiliations. I think that gets messy. All I can do is trust what researchers publish (in a peer reviewed process, nonetheless) as a work of academic integrity. Maybe Im wrong on this UT Austin study. If so, I'll eat my hat.

I want to bring up a larger point, and it’s this: it seems to me the environmental community is missing the boat. Instead of saying “stop fracking at all costs”, I think a more productive approach is “what are the appropriate environmental controls for technology X?” EDF is taking a modern environmental practical approach that brings industry, its own environmentalists, and scientists to the same table, but they're getting lambasted for it.

Update: Andy Revkin at DotEarth brings up an important point in the comments below. Posted here so you don't miss it:

The same phenomenon has happened with oil pipelines. The Pulitzer-winning team that dug in on pipeline problems in the Midwest said nobody in enviro community wanted to hear their prescription for improving pipeline safety, integrity because that would enable building more... Here's an excerpt from relevant Dot Earth piece, "Pipelines, Pulitzers and Independent Online Journalism" http://nyti.ms/XJhj8a :

One of my questions:

"Is the solution to ban pipelines or to have more rigorous oversight?"

Susan White [one of the journalists] replied:

"The idea that we’re building pipelines using rules and regulations that are out of date is appalling. Forget whether you want pipelines or you want Canadian crude oil. That’s a separate debate…. More than 10,000 miles of new or repurposed pipelines are planned for the United States in the next few years. Why aren’t we making sure that they’re safer?"

I noted that it appeared to me that prominent environmental groups don’t want to discuss safer pipelines:

"As soon as you say you want to make it safer you’re basically saying it’s okay."

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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