The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is operating under a "misperception of initial production from gas wells," which "has led to a drastic overestimate of methane emissions from hydraulically fractured [fracked] natural gas wells," according to Darren Smith, environmental manager for Devon Energy Corp.
"This overestimate has allowed EPA to justify the promulgation of new air standards for the natural gas industry," Smith told lawmakers during a hearing of a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in Washington, DC, last Tuesday. "More important, we continue to see new policy research being based on a foundation of this bad data, guaranteeing that the wrong conclusions are reached."
Devon officials first became aware that EPA had dramatically changed its emissions estimates for fracked wells when researchers at Cornell University claimed in a report that methane leaked during shale natural gas drilling and production activities is more than that seen from wells in conventional plays and is a more serious threat to global warming than carbon dioxide released from coal (see NGI, Jan. 23; April 18, 2011). While that report has been roundly criticized by industry groups, a variety of subsequent studies (see NGI, Aug. 29, 2011; May 16, 2011; April 25, 2011) and even rival researchers at Cornell (see NGI, Dec. 5, 2011), EPA continues to promote its conclusions, Smith said.
"Devon became suspicious of EPA's new estimate because, if true, it would mean that Devon alone wastes over $40 million of natural gas to the atmosphere annually. Clearly, a successful company like Devon could not tolerate this level of waste," Smith said. "When we investigated the basis of the estimate change we learned that EPA staff had used industry data reported to it under the voluntary EPA Natural Gas STAR Program to generate the new factor."
That data came from only three companies and represented gas captured, not gas emitted, according to Smith.
"Devon has informed EPA of this error numerous times...[and] the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has petitioned for a correction under the Data Quality Act. Despite all of this, EPA has failed to acknowledge its mistake, much less correct it."
In its final rule to eliminate air pollution from oil and natural gas production, EPA two months ago granted the industry a "reasonable" time to meet its requirements, extending the deadline for full compliance from 60 days to two-and-a-half-years (see NGI, April 23). The rule, which will apply to unconventional wells that are stimulated using fracking, is required by the Clean Air Act with a deadline for its issuance set by a court order. Volatile organic compounds were to be reduced at wells drilled after Aug. 23, 2011 through a two-phase process requiring flaring followed by "green completions," equipment that would be used to capture and sell natural gas emissions that are currently being lost. The EPA set a deadline of Jan. 1, 2015 for full compliance.
Testifying earlier at the hearing, EPA's Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, characterized the standards as a "win-win" that would "protect public health in a way that supports responsibly increasing domestic production." She said the standards would ultimately pay for themselves through green completions.
"EPA is confident that our emissions estimates for gas well completions are reasonable, that they don't overestimate the total emissions and they're based on the best data currently available," McCarthy said. "We will continue, however, to work with stakeholders to ensure that we understand their concerns and that the misconceptions that we're hearing do not continue."
But the EPA's intransigence on frack well emissions appears to be a part of the Obama administration's larger strategy to move the nation away from carbon fuels, according to Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY). While the White House has touted its support of natural gas as part of a clean energy mix, it is moving toward a "war on natural gas" after it completes its ongoing "war on coal," Barrasso said. "The rhetoric of this White House does not match the actions of this administration and its allies in the environmental community."
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