Shale Panel: Better Greenhouse Gas Data Needed

Wanted: Natural gas industry volunteers.

The job: Provide the data that will determine if your shale gas operations actually give off a lot more greenhouse gases than your industry “clean skies” image would suggest.

That’s one of the main recommendations released this morning by a key U.S. advisory panel that the Obama administration established to help determine the path of the nation’s natural gas future. The U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board’s natural gas subcommittee unveiled a 41-page report with preliminary advice on how to grapple with the environmental challenges that have grown out of the industry that now produces nearly one third of U.S. natural gas.

(Explore National Geographic’s special report, The Great Shale Gas Rush)

Just prior to the report’s release, the subcommittee—which began its work 90 days ago—faced a barrage of criticism due to some of its members’ ties to industry. The Environmental Working Group released a letter signed by scientists from 22 universities and institutions, voicing concern that conflicts of interest would bias the report.

Skeptics of the committee’s makeup can at least take some small satisfaction that the panel—despite members with financial ties to industry—fell short of endorsing the way the shale gas business is being run.

In addition to its recommendations on chemicals disclosure and water protection, the panel addressed what is developing as an environmental issue that strikes at the heart of natural gas’s claim to an expanding role in the world energy picture. Does the unconventional method of forcing gas out of shale rock with large volumes of high-pressure water and horizontal drilling, and all the infrastructure that goes with it, actually produce enough greenhouse gas to diminish or negate the benefits of burning natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity?

(Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Natural Gas)

The natural gas subcommittee said a project to determine the answer to that question should begin immediately.  “A thorough assessment of the greenhouse gas footprint for cradle-to-grave use of natural gas” is important, the panel said, “in light of the expectation that natural gas use will expand and substitute for other fuels.  There have been relatively few analyses done of the question of the greenhouse gas footprint over the entire fuel-cycle of natural gas production, delivery and use, and little data are available that bear on the question.”

Noting that such a study would be expensive and would likely take years, the panelists issued its call for volunteers. “The Subcommittee recommends enlisting a subset of producers in different basins, on a voluntary basis, to immediately launch projects to design and rapidly implement measurement systems to collect comprehensive methane and other air emissions data,” the report said.

Will the industry cooperate? And should such an important data-collection task be left to industry voluntary reporting?

Policy is not waiting for the answers to these questions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already has proposed rules for controlling the greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas operations. (See “A Move to Capture ‘Fugutive’ Natural Gas Emissions”). The natural gas subcommittee notes this process, as well as rules being considered in Wyoming and Colorado, and says that the gathering of better data would ultimately be useful to industry as well as regulators, “identifying cost-effective procedures and equipment changes that will reduce emissions; and guiding practical regulation and potentially avoid burdensome and contentious regulatory procedures.”

And the panel notes one other motivation for the natural gas industry to cooperate: to reverse the tide of public skepticism about their activities. The subcommittee said it has been ineffectual for industry advocates to simply argue that hydraulic fracturing has been performed safely for years, when the combination of techniques being used on shale have only been used for less than a decade. “An industry response that hydraulic fracturing has been performed safely for decades rather than engaging the range of issues concerning the public will not succeed,” the panel said.

(Related: Correcting Faulty Math on Renewable Energy))

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