A new study about the footprint left by natural gas has been receiving a lot of attention for its controversial finding that the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from natural gas production are greater than those from coal production.
The study, quite simply, does not support the flashy headlines it has produced. There are many points to dispute in this research conducted by Cornell University professors Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea – from the methodology they used to the assumptions they made at the outset, which do not apply to the Marcellus Formation, the focus on most of the new domestic natural gas production today. But one need not even dive into those more substantive questions to poke major holes in this study.
Let’s start with the source. By Professor Howarth’s and co-author Anthony Ingraffea’s own admission, the data used in their study are “pretty low quality … really lousy.” And then there is this bombshell from the authors themselves: “We did not look as carefully at coal.” The authors, in other words, set out to compare the impact of coal and natural gas production, but then neglected to carefully study the coal part of the equation. How’s that for hard science?
In fact, this is not Professor Howarth’s first attempt to use scientific research to vilify natural gas, nor is it the first time his research has been found to be seriously flawed. He withdrew an earlier study after admitting that he hadn’t known that coal production also produced methane emissions.
These would seem to be serious gaffes, particularly for a supposedly scholarly analysis. But for those inclined to overlook this low-hanging fruit and focus on the meat of the study, there are several more problems. For one, the study makes a sweeping assumption that all “lost and unaccounted-for gas” between what is produced at the wellhead and what makes it to market has escaped into the atmosphere. In reality, not all of this gas is leaked. As it is transported, it becomes compressed, which accounts for at least some of the differences between the volume at the wellhead and that at the final market destination. This issue is explained in more detail in a rebuttal on Energy In Depth, which also notes that Howarth’s findings on leakage do not pertain to gas produced at Marcellus, which need only travel a short distance to its final market. Incredibly, the authors based their calculations for methane leakage on some long-distance transmission lines in Russia.
We could continue listing the major flaws in this study, but there is a larger point to be made here. Natural gas is one of our natural treasures: a rare source of domestic fuel that exists in abundance and has the potential to significantly reduce our decades-long dependence on oil from abroad. While other alternative fuel sources show promise, natural gas shows proven results: Some 12 million vehicles around the world are already running on natural gas.
Yes, we must use scientific research to understand the impact of all of our different fuel sources. But it must be sound research, not the flimsy sort of science on which Professor Howarth’s study is based. We must also recognize the role of science in finding solutions, rather than simply identifying problems. Yes, all energy production has some sort of an impact. But when considering a source of clean-burning fuel that exists in plentiful supply right here at home, we ought to be using science to understand how we can produce with minimal impact and how technology can lead us to even better production practices. Because if we simply use science to discredit all our sources of home-grown fuel, we are doomed to a future that looks like our past: a continued addiction to imported oil.