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The news is out that Fracking (Hydraulic Fracturing) produces less leaked methane gas than previously thought.

The Heavy-Hitter environmental organization, Environmental Defense Fund (known as EDF), sponsored this study in alliance with nine petrochemical companies (Anadarko Petroleum Corporation; BG Group plc; Chevron; Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc.; Pioneer Natural Resources Company; SWEPI LP (Shell); Southwestern Energy; Talisman Energy USA; and XTO Energy, an ExxonMobil subsidiary).

This is a cozy relationship for major polluters and a major environmental group. EDF lists the funders of its methane initiative as including, Fiona and Stan Druckenmiller, Heising-Simons Foundation, Bill and Susan Oberndorf, Betsy and Sam Reeves, Robertson Foundation, Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor, and Walton Family Foundation.

EDF built its reputation as an environmental advocate that seeks “win-win” solutions.  A crucial part to evaluating “win-win” has been the technique called “cradle-to-grave” analysis.  That is,  gauging the impact of something on the environment by considering ALL phases of extraction, manufacture, distribution, consumption and ultimate discarding of the item.  In promoting this study and trumpeting the good-news about “completion technology”, EDF seems to be abandoning its famous “cradle-to-grave” mantra.

Some criticism of the study has emerged.  For example, Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE) is unconvinced because of the small sample size and relatively ideal conditions of the emissions survey.  Clean Technica laments the limits of this study noting that,

for the record that while some studies indicate that fugitive emissions are a manageable problem, studies at other gas fields, including a recent NOAA study, have indicated that fugitive emissions form a critical issue that is not easily addressed by new regulations.

For its limited scope,  the study appears to be a solid demonstration that so called “completion” technology required by  EPA regulations does allow the capture of escaped methane.

However, methane also escapes at other stages of gas production and distribution.  The New York Times notes that,

“The American Petroleum Institute hailed the study’s conclusions, saying in a statement that its own efforts to reduce methane emissions “are paying off.” But while E.P.A.-mandated measures appear to have reduced emissions during well completions, the study also concluded that leaks elsewhere in the fracking process were higher than the E.P.A. had previously estimated.

Estimates of leaks from chemical pumps, while small, were twice past estimates, while leaks from pneumatic controllers, or valves, were pegged at more than 639,000 tons a year, roughly a third greater. None of those components are currently subject to federal regulation.

EDF maintains that the EPA can use its power to create New Source Performance Standards to regulate emissions controls for these other aspects of fracking.  But even once such new standards are made mandatory, it takes time for industry to actually adopt them.  The “completion” technology, the focus of the study,  is NOT used industry-wide.

DISTRIBUTION of natural gas is also a LEAKY business.  In Massachusetts alone, according to a congressional study, consumers paid up to $1.5 billion in the past decade  for natural gas that leaked from pipes.

A recently released congressional study commissioned by Senator Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat, estimated natural gas customers in Massachusetts paid up to $1.5 billion over the last decade for fuel lost to gas leaks.

  This summer Picarro, Inc. demonstrated a new leak-detection technology that is 1,000 times more sensitive than the standard equipment used by gas companies.  As reported in the Boston Globe, the detection of leaks from natural gas pipelines was astounding,

Even knowing how precise Picarro’s instrumentation is — given that he helped design it — company chief technical officer Eric Crosson said he was still amazed the first time he went out with Phillips to test the technology.

“We drive no more than a block and suddenly, there’s a huge amount of methane,” Crosson recalled. “Then we drove a little farther and there was another one, and then we drove a little farther and there was another one.”

Gas companies are used to detecting leaks that are hazardous.  However, the gas companies’ view of a “hazardous leak” is one that poses risk to life.  That is, one that is leathal or risks explosion.

The intense impact of methane as a green house gas, however, demands the re-evaluation of what constitutes  “hazardous” leaks.

EDF does have a program underway to study and control pipeline leaks.  EDF also promotes awareness of other environmental dangers associated with fracking (ground water contamination, waste water containment and pollution of watersheds, air pollution, air pollution).

Overall, however, EDF is an advocate of fracking and seeks only to manage the threats posed by the fracking industry.  For those who have already found those threats devastating to their lives and homes, this is small consolation.


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