The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Shale Gas Emissions Study: Garbage In, Garbage Out

Jane Van Ryan

Jane Van Ryan
Posted April 13, 2011

Calling it "an annual rite of spring," Energy In Depth (EID) debunks the latest Cornell "study" on emissions from shale gas development. Although the study got the attention of The New York Times and other major publications, EID points out on its blog that this isn't the first time that Cornell University Professor Robert Howarth has issued studies or abstracts alleging that shale gas production, especially the process of hydraulic fracturing, emits more methane than previously thought. His goal: casting a pall on the environmental benefits of using clean-burning natural gas.

As EID reports, last year Howarth withdrew his initial two-page abstract after calculation errors were found. This year he's at it again with some of his colleagues and has fed information to some major U.S. newspapers, claiming that "the footprint of shale gas is at least 20 percent greater...on a 20-year horizon" than coal.

But does that make sense? Well, apparently it depends on how you manipulate the data. EID points out:

  • The impact of methane emissions on climate change usually are examined over a 100-year time frame. Accelerating that time line to 20 years and estimating methane emissions at a higher level than other scientists appear to greatly expand the shale gas emissions to levels that aren't likely to pass scrutiny.
  • Howarth has been quoted admitting that his data are "pretty lousy."
  • The authors include estimates of methane leaks from pipeline that are not germane to shale gas development.

API's Russell Jones looked at the information that's been made available about the study - it won't be published until tomorrow - and said, "This study lacks credibility and is full of contradictions...The main author is an evolutionary biologist and an anti-natural gas activist who is not credentialed to do this kind of chemical analysis. In supporting documents, the authors admit that the data used was of very low quality. This study is really an exercise in selective data and manipulated methodologies used to reach conclusions that deliberately contradict mainstream science."

Furthermore, Russell said while this "peer reviewed" article makes sweeping claims about methane emissions from shale gas production, it contains only two references for shale gas production emissions. Bizarre as it may seem, one reference is from 2004 - four years before there was enough shale gas produced in the country for the federal government to track it separately. And the Internet link to the other reference - allegedly reporting methane emissions from Haynesville shale - contains the word "methane" but appears to have no data on emissions whatsoever. In short, one data point is far too old to be relevant, and the other contains no shale gas emissions data. And this is from a "peer reviewed" journal.

Russell also noted that a summary of Howarth's study was released just before a Capitol Hill hearing on hydraulic fracturing. It also coincided with a march against shale gas development in Albany, N.Y. Howarth, by the way, is hardly an unbiased researcher. In fact, EID reports that he led anti-fracturing demonstration in Binghamton, N.Y. last fall.

Need another reason to question the study's credibility? Former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger -- formerly CEO of Penn Future, considered the state's leading environmental advocacy organization - sent a note to his colleagues in January stating "A paper that some of you may have seen authored by a professor professing to show carbon emissions are greater from gas is riddled with errors." (Hanger message to colleagues, Jan. 13, 2011)

Here's the bottom line: We've all heard the expression, "garbage in, garbage out." This study appears to be pure garbage.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jane Van Ryan was formerly senior communications manager and new media advisor at the American Petroleum Institute (API), where she wrote blog posts and produced podcasts and videos. Before coming to API, Jane managed communications for a large science and engineering corporation, and for a top-tier research and engineering university. A few years ago, you might have seen her in your living room when she delivered the news on television. Jane officially retired from API in 2011 and now freelances as an independent communications consultant when not gardening at her farm in Virginia.