The environmental impact of natural gas can be viewed in a positive light as a lower-emitting power generation source than coal or petroleum derivatives, or in a negative light as a source of methane emissions and driver of drilling activity. The University of Texas at Austin, in collaboration with the Environmental Defense Fund and nine natural gas producers, is conducting an exhaustive study of methane emissions from natural gas production in an attempt to get a better handle on whether the environmental negatives outweigh the positives, at least when it comes to emissions.

“The issue of methane leakage is getting a lot of attention, because much of the policy discussion is premised on the view that natural gas has roughly half of the greenhouse gas emissions relative to coal for power generation,” said Jason Bordoff, Director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, at an event to discuss the study on Monday.

EDF chief scientist Steve Hamburg and chief counsel for its U.S. climate and energy program Mark Brownstein were present at the event to discuss the study’s findings, which focused on completion operations at hydraulically fractured wells. They addressed claims that it proves definitively that natural gas production results in lower methane emissions than feared, as well as detractors’ criticisms that cooperation with industry undermines the validity of its results.

Below are five key takeaways from the discussion.

  1. It is one piece of a much larger study. Findings released thus far address only methane emissions at the wellhead. The larger study will examine all aspects of the supply chain: production, gathering and processing, transmission, distribution and end use. “There’s no supply chain conclusion that we can draw, because we’ve only looked at one piece of it,” said Hamburg.
  2. Its purpose is to generate reliable data. This study comes early on in efforts to assess hydraulically fractured wells’ contribution to U.S. emissions, and accurate data remains somewhat scarce. “Anyone else can pick up the results and reanalyze them,” Hamburg said. ”It’s informing the public about the science so that we end up with the strongest set of data…rather than just the bottom-line conclusion.”
  3. It shows that regulations can work. Results indicate that compliance with Environmental Protection Agency ‘green completions‘ requirements for hydraulically fractured wells cuts methane emissions from well completions by 99%. "The regulations, as they stand, are effective when they’re deployed,” Hamburg said.
  4. Industry participants did not manipulate research. In any given area, in a given time period, there are only a certain number of wells in the completion stage. Companies provided a list of wells undergoing completion, and had no say as to which ones the researchers chose to investigate, said Hamburg.
  5. Studies yielding different results can be complementary. Detractors of the UT study’s findings have cited a recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which found leak rates in one area of the Uinta Basin that were much higher than EPA estimates. The methods and metrics NOAA used differed from those use for the UT-Austin study, making an apples-to-apples comparison impossible. But NOAA’s overflight results, combined with UT Austin’s bottom-up results, can be combined to offer a more complete picture. ”You need both methods. One is not a substitute for the other,” said Brownstein.

In addition to comments about the study itself, Hamburg and Brownstein made the following points:

  1. Methane emissions are one issue in a much broader natural gas policy discussion. “To really understand natural gas’ role in our nation’s energy mix, it is important to take a step back and think about both the pluses and minuses,” Brownstein said.
  2. Regulations establish a minimum for acceptable behavior in an industry with thousands of players. “We have, depending on who you ask, 2,000 to 3,000, and even up to 7,000 different producers,” said Brownstein. ”You can’t get 3,000 to 7,000 players around a conference table. We need to make sure that all these players are living up to these standards.”
  3. Good behavior doesn’t always clear the rate-of-return hurdle. “This is a margin business, and companies are looking for every dime. There is an incentive, frankly, to cut corners,” Brownstein said. ”There’s a return on investment from capturing this natural gas, but it doesn’t necessarily always meet a company’s hurdle rate for capital deployment.”
  4. EPA regulations should be expanded to other sources of natural gas production. Oil and liquids drilling, which often yields large volumes of associated gas as a byproduct, is not subject to EPA’s green completions requirements. “That is where the industry is most active these days,” said Brownstein, adding, ”These EPA green completion requirements don’t apply there."


Editor's note: This article is reposted in its original form from Breaking Energy. Author credit goes to Conway Irwin.