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Fracking Not Source of Methane Leaks, Senate Panel Told

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is not the culprit in methane emissions, but other parts of the drilling process are, and they are fixable, according to  a panel of industry, academic and environmental representatives.

Except for a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the panelists testifying Tuesday before a U.S. Senate environment and public works subcommittee were not in favor of stiffer rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  as a means of reducing methane emissions from gas production operations. Senators and panelists agreed that there is sufficient technology and equipment now for the industry to reduce leaks.

"The Obama administration's EPA has been working in collaboration with the industry with much success to reduce methane emissions, " EPA's Sarah Durham, director of the office of atmospheric programs, told the hearing called to examine "Fugitive Methane Emissions from Oil/Natural Gas Operations."

Durham said the joint federal government-industry programs "focus on removing market barriers and increasing the use of cost-effective emission-reduction technologies," adding that the industry has sufficient cost-effective means to rein in emissions from their operations.

While Durham defended the need and effectiveness of the new oil/gas performance standards for volatile organic compounds [including fugitive methane], the industry and academic panelists were skeptical. Various studies including one led by University of Texas researcher David Allen, have found EPA 2011 emissions estimates from fracking are too high, but they have been too low for other parts of well site gas operations, such as various pneumatic devices used as controls.

"If industry, environmental groups and regulators work together in collaborative way, solutions can be found [for all sources of fugitive emissions]," said Mark Boling, president of Southwestern Energy Co.'s V+ Development Solutions division. Boling said EPA's overall methane emissions estimates and those found by Allen's industry-backed University of Texas were comparable; the big differences were the sub-sources of emissions.

"This [Texas] study showed that the emissions from the natural gas sector can be effectively minimized by applying reasonable emission-capturing practices," Boling said. "It also shows that there are additional opportunities to reduce emissions from the [gas] sector."

Calling methane a highly polluting greenhouse gas, NRDC's staff scientist Vignesh Gowrishankar, told the Senate subcommittee that stronger rules from EPA are needed to address fugitive methane, citing the federal statistics that say 1.5% of all natural gas produced annually escapes into the atmosphere. Gowrishankar said the percentages have been reported much higher (up to 7%) in several isolated locations.

Regardless of the percentages, he said it is a "fundamental and incontrovertible point that natural gas is leaking into the atmosphere, polluting the air and damaging our planet when instead it could be put to economically good use."

On the other side, Devon Energy Corp.'s environmental policy manager Darren Smith called EPA data on the issue "fundamentally flawed" with the result that it is "contaminating: public policy considerations." In the past year, Smith said Devon has been engaging EPA with what he called "constructive dialogue," urging the federal agency to revise the methods it uses to calculate methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing.

The head of Texas A&M petroleum engineering department, Daniel Hill, said he was a member of an advisory panel for the University of Texas study, emphasizing that it showed there are many emissions sources and all are reduce-able in the gas production process. Hill urged that additional comprehensive studies be done on all of the other parts of gas well operations beside fracking and flowback.

"[The Texas] study has alleviated the fear that large volumes of natural gas are emitted during the flowback period following hydraulic fracturing, however, the study did reveal significant sources of emissions occurring during other shale gas well operations."

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