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Clearing the Air on ProPublica’s Drilling Pollution Story

ProPublica responds to a pro-drilling industry group that questioned the veracity of its story on greenhouse gas emissions from gas fields

On January 25, ProPublica published a story disclosing that the EPA had more than doubled its estimates of the amount of greenhouse gases believed to be leaked into the atmosphere from the natural gas drilling and extraction processes. The article used these new EPA estimates, combined with peer-reviewed research methodologies, to compare the total lifecycle emissions from natural gas use to the total lifecycle emissions from coal. We found that in a worst-case -- but very common -- scenario, the advantage of using natural gas was substantially diminished from the advantage held by conventional wisdom. To be clear, our article did not say that the EPA had conducted the lifecycle analysis of the fuels, or that the EPA had concluded gas was disadvantageous.

Last week the industry-funded pro-drilling group Energy in Depth – which has not contacted ProPublica directly to express concerns about the article’s accuracy – issued a statement challenging the facts of our story. The EID release states that the EPA data cited in the article is not new, that the agency never undertook a lifecycle assessment of natural gas, that ProPublica ignored other EPA documents, and that ProPublica’s conclusions are based on a “pamphlet” by a university researcher.

These assertions amount to a misunderstanding of the article and a distortion and mischaracterization of the facts.

For one, EID inexplicably claims that ProPublica’s characterizations are made “absent any data.” ProPublica’s finding is based on several interviews with agency officials and the recent publication by the EPA of a working document that clearly outlines the EPA’s revision of its older figures. Page 10 of that document states that greenhouse gas emissions from the production stage of oil and gas alone are now believed to be 198 MMtCo2e, an upward revision from 90 MMtCo2e under the agency’s old analysis. Broken down, that same page states that total methane leaked and vented from all natural gas systems -- not just production, but also including processing and transmission – was about 261 MMtCo2e, far more than double the comparable amount the EPA had last reported on page 3-45 of its annual published greenhouse gas inventory. EPA officials told ProPublica that their research was on this topic was evolving quickly, that the figures published in the working document represented the latest and most accurate understanding held by the agency, and that they supersede the comparable data published in the EPA’s April, 2010 Greenhouse Gas Inventory. They advised that because the figures seemed to be changing frequently, we generalize our conclusions to say that emissions estimates had “at least doubled.”

The EID statement argues that no new EPA research exists concerning the lifecycle of natural gas, and states that ProPublica’s report is based on “a six-page pamphlet.” ProPublica’s original story is clear in explaining that EPA provided revised estimates for gas field emissions, not the lifecycle assessment. The lifecycle analysis itself is based on a peer-reviewed article published in the highly-regarded scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology. That journal article explains in detail the methodology used to calculate the lifecycle emissions from natural gas compared to the lifecycle emissions from coal, depending on multiple variables including the various efficiencies and heat rates of the power plants where the fuel is ultimately burned. The author of that paper worked with ProPublica to provide a formula, which ProPublica then used to calculate a new lifecycle estimate based on the updated emissions figures set by the EPA.

The EID response points to a chart contained on page 3-45 of the EPA’s 2010 Greenhouse Gas Inventory that shows declining annual emissions from natural gas drilling and alleges that ProPublica ignored this data. In fact, ProPublica’s article not only linked to this document and referenced this exact chart as one measure of the government and industry’s success in working to cut emissions, but factored an estimate for the EPA’s emission-reduction program, called GasSTAR, into its calculations.

EID suggests that this older EPA document reflects the best known data for emissions. It does not. The new EPA estimates are more recent and more accurate, according to the EPA, and when the Greenhouse Gas Inventory is updated in April 2011 it will reflect the revisions.

The EID statement, referencing the chart on p. 3-45 of the old 2010 inventory, states that “methane that escapes into the air pursuant to natural gas operations in the United States continues to go down. By a lot.” In fact, when these numbers are updated to reflect the EPA’s latest figures, the chart is expected to change and the net amount of emissions will have gone up, not down, according to an explanation given by the EPA to ProPublica.

The EID response criticizes the EPA technical paper itself, stating incorrectly that on p. 84 the EPA based all of its findings “on a single data point.” In fact, the reference in question is on p. 86 and it clearly states that the EPA’s estimates were based on “several” factors, including data from the GasSTAR program itself. The document goes on to describe one example, but states repeatedly that its estimates are still considered to be conservative, and likely underestimated.

The EID response suggests that the EPA’s own conclusions are based on thin research. But the fact is that there is a long, deep record of peer-reviewed scientific research and government-sponsored reports that have also said that gas field emissions are underestimated and should be sharply revised upward. Here is a sampling of documents explaining how emissions estimates have been underestimated: A Texas study by the EPA’s current regional administrator when he was a professor at Southern Methodist University; a climate evaluation completed by the state of New Mexico, and a paper published by researchers at the University of California, Irvine. One especially good resource is this document containing an industry estimate from the gas drilling company Williams.

Finally, EID attacks the methodology of a Cornell University researcher, Robert Howarth, and alleges that ProPublica’s article was incorrectly based on Howarth’s estimates. In fact Howarth’s research was not the basis for any of the emissions figures or calculations reported by ProPublica, and ProPublica’s article was completed before Howarth’s latest letter, cited by EID, was released.

ProPublica repeatedly sought comment and input on its reporting from the natural gas industry over the past several months, including Energy in Depth. EID was shown the specific findings of our article, and was pointed to the documentation that supported it, before ProPublica’s article was published, yet repeatedly declined to comment.

Separately, the EPA has also sent a statement regarding ProPublica’s reporting to Energy in Depth. In it, press officer Erin Birgfeld references the same technical paper discussed above and emphasizes that it “does not estimate emissions from the gas industry and the emissions estimates in the article were not developed by EPA.” When we contacted the EPA for an explanation, we were told that the EPA did not find any factual discrepancies with what ProPublica had reported and was not disputing any of the emissions figures contained in the documents referenced here. The agency’s statement was only meant to clarify that the lifecycle analysis was calculated by ProPublica and was separate from the emissions figures the agency has reported.

Here’s the full statement from EPA, since Abrahm couldn’t find any space to post it:

“EPA has not conducted an analysis of coal versus natural gas, and there is no new report.  The information referred to in the article was developed based on information from a Technical Support Document, however, which was developed as support for the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. The reporter used that data and did his own calculations to arrive at the figures used in the article.

“The document above does not estimate emissions from the gas industry and the emissions estimates in the article were not developed by EPA. EPA has not reviewed the analysis described in the article in detail, but we have not seen any indication that the benefits of natural gas have been called into question.  Available data demonstrate that switching from another fossil fuel to natural gas reduces emissions of carbon pollution and other harmful pollutants that threaten Americans’ health.”

Stand your ground on this Propublica.  I’ve thought for a long time that moving to natural gas was mostly a way for T. Boone Pickens to get even richer and didn’t benefit the envirionment or the climate ENOUGH to warrant a move to it from *other* fossil fuels. We need to get rid of all fossil fuels. Our climate and our future depend on it.  We need to get emissions down to zero, not half of coal and oil. Not 25% either.

When considering the pollution of fossil fuels you need to consider the entire life cycle, so I appreciate PP’s work on this.  I looked up long ago on a large natural gas website the C02 emissions of natural gas and it’s evident that it’s a bit better for *pollution* but still bad for *climate change*.  Not worth it.

The EPA is overly careful in the wording of all of its statements because they have to be for legal reasons.

Ignore the big fossil fuel companies, they will eventually be the losers in energy and they know it.

Follow the money. When an industry shill challenges a journalist, it’s usually a deceptive challenge with propaganda and profits as the primary motives. Fact is, all fossil fuel sourcing and use are harmful to humans and the biosphere. Some more, some less. But all are harmful in a variety of ways that go beyond greenhouse gas emissions. The larger context is that there are no technological fixes, neither green nor brown, that will cleanly supply the energy we use to fuel our obese lifestyles. Only by reducing our consumption rates will we ever be truly green. Now watch while the propagandists for the fossil fuel industry, and for the current death-dealing consumerist culture, post comments attacking me and Pro Publica.

“Available data demonstrate that switching from another fossil fuel to natural gas reduces emissions of carbon pollution and other harmful pollutants that threaten Americans’ health.”

That’s disappointing.  The EPA can’t really believe that getting to zero carbon emissions involves burning lots of natural gas, and polluting our water in the process.

Propaganda is what Lee Fuller and Energy in Depth do.  They challenged GASLAND almost before it was screened, and their “debunking” was an embarassment from which they had to backpeddle furiously.  If one were to check the original document the lobbying group put out, to the current objections that it posts, you will find serious omissions, such as their original, bizarre statement “A recent study by Penn State Univ. projects that by the year 2020, producers will have developed 3,587 shale gas wells.”  I believe the real projection was that by the year 2020, production will have ramped up to about 3,587 PER YEAR.

Energy in Depth is not interested in truth, but rather, in muddying the waters, through amateurish attempts at undermining the reputations of their opponents.

Hopefully, truth will out, and will be understood.  Kudos to ProPublica for leading the charge.

Poor Mr Lustgarten .... caught with his hand in the cookie jar of disinformation again, just like when Dave Kopel called you to the carpet.

You shouldnt be so blatant with your lies in the future.

Congratulations on the EPA looking at the real life cycle of natural gas extraction.  Now, will someone look at the true life cycle of coal - mountaintop removal, water pollution, rail delivery diesel pollution, and of course, loss of life.

David Blackmon

Feb. 10, 2011, 12:51 p.m.

Ira hits the salient point here:  Why do the “environmentalists” at ProPublica continue to insist upon being little more than a free mouthpiece for the coal industry in America?

Any real “environmentalist” should want to know the answer to that question.

billigurlaub tuerkei

Feb. 14, 2011, 10:54 p.m.

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This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Fracking

Fracking: Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

More »

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