A call for congressional hearings on methane emissions from natural gas


capitol_domeThe rate at which methane leaks into the atmosphere from natural gas production “is a critical question that we must answer,” say Reps. Henry Waxman and Bobby Rush, who have called on the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to hold hearings on this issue. Considering the Obama administration’s full-tilt support for natural gas fracking, which will the Republican leadership prioritize: an opportunity to raise critical questions about administration policy, or a desire to avoid raising critical questions about the environmental impacts of fracking?

Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman (D-California) and Energy and Power Subcommittee Ranking Member Bobby L. Rush (D-Illinois) sent a letter to Chairmen Fred Upton (R-Michigan) and Ed Whitfield (R-Kentucky) requesting that the Committee hold hearings on methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. From the statement on their website:

Natural gas emits less carbon dioxide when burned than coal or oil.  But during production, processing, and distribution of natural gas, methane can leak into the atmosphere.  Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that is even more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide.  As a result, some have raised concerns that these methane emissions, if left uncontrolled, can negate the climate benefit of using more natural gas to generate electricity.

In the letter, the members write that the rate at which methane leaks into the atmosphere from natural gas production “is a critical question that we must answer.”  Over the last several years, academics and industry groups have tried to answer this question, often with varying results.  The letter highlights two recent studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which raise questions about how to best estimate methane emissions and demonstrate the need for more congressional attention on this issue.

The Waxman-Rush letter might catch the Republican leadership of the Energy and Commerce Committee in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, they want to take ever opportunity to call administration policy into question; on the other, they may hesitate to allow critical questions to be raised about the environmental impacts of fossil energy extraction.

The Senate has started to take a few steps on looking at the fracking problem. On November 5, 2013, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Subcommittee on Oversight, held a hearing on Fugitive Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Operations. Witnesses included the Director of the Office of Atmospheric Programs at the Environmental protection Agency. Witness testimony and an archived webcast of the hearing are posted at the Committee’s web page for the hearing.

The Subcommittee on Oversight is chaired by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), co-founder and co-chair with Rep. Waxman of the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change. For more than a year now, Sen. Whitehouse has been giving a series of weekly “Time to Wake Up” speeches on the Senate floor. Some of these are posted at the Senator’s website. The Ranking Minority member on the Committee is the global warming denialist James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma).

And on May 23, 2013, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) held a “Forum” on Shale Development: Best Practices and Environmental Concerns, with participation by industry interests, government officials, and environmental groups. Documents and an archived webcast are posted at the Committee’s web page for the Forum (the Forum convenes at 23:19 of the webcast).

We wrote in Index on Censorship (“Obama and Harper — Modes of Support for Fossil Fuel Development”):

Natural gas from ‘fracking’ appears to be an essential component of the administration’s climate policy, i.e., relying on the ongoing trend of substitution of natural gas for coal in power plants in order to meet a 2020 goal for reducing U.S. carbon emissions. The Department of the Interior has proposed to open 600 million acres of public land to fracking. But fracking is controversial, raising concerns about contamination of drinking water in affected areas by chemicals used in fracking, large-scale use of water in drilling, air pollution, leaking methane greenhouse gas emissions, and industrial degradation of rural landscapes. Environmental groups have protested at the White House, calling for a moratorium on fracking on public lands.

There are sIgns that the administration may be allowing political pressure from the natural gas industry to compromise investigations by the Environmental Protection Agency into fracking contamination incidents. The EPA has pulled back from several high-profile investigations in a manner that raises questions about whether this indicates a pattern of failure to act on scientific evidence. When the EPA’s scientists found evidence that fracking was contaminating water supplies, the EPA stopped or slowed down their work in in PennsylvaniaTexas, and Wyoming.

[Something for the new scientific integrity official at EPA to look into and keep an eye on. Also: Internal EPA report shows division over fracking contamination study]

“Not only does this pattern of behavior leave impacted residents in the lurch, but it raises important questions as to whether the agency is caving to pressure from industry, antagonistic members of Congress and/or other outside sources,” Kate Sinding at the Natural Resources Defense Council notes. “This trend also calls into serious question the agency’s commitment to conducting an impartial, comprehensive assessment of the risks fracking presents to drinking water—a first-of-its-kind study that is now in its fourth year, with initial results now promised in 2014.” The EPA recently announced that it has delayed the expected final date of this study until 2016 — Obama’s eighth and final year in office. Meanwhile, industry continues to create a fait accompli of radically expanded fracking operations.

In our review comments on the Sixth U.S. Climate Action Report (Review comments on CAR-6: U.S. Climate Action Report draft lacks long-term strategy) we wrote:

Displacing coal can make a significant contribution to reducing U.S. emissions through 2020. But relatively cheap and plentiful natural gas does not only compete with coal. It competes with energy efficiency and renewable energy, which should be the fundamental basis for a long-term emissions reduction strategy. If cutting back on coal use is done by fully opening the natural gas valve, we may do more to undermine the goal of a fossil-fuel phase-out than to advance it.

CAR-6 lacks a sufficiently long-term perspective. As required, the report provides “with measures” emissions estimates for 2020 and 2030, based on policies in place as of 2012. However, the report fails to set post-2020 emissions reduction goals. It does not discuss the effects of the Climate Action Plan beyond 2020 — including actions that the U.S. plans to take pursuant to its 2020 goal, such as promoting the rapid expansion of natural gas use — that may undermine longer-term efforts to curb emissions. …

The global warming consequences of different gases are based on their concentrations in the atmosphere and the “Global Warming Potential” (GWP) of each gas relative to CO2. CAR-6 uses the GWPs from the IPCC Second Assessment Report (SAR) published in 1996 – 17 years ago, rather than those in the Working Group I contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) released in September 2013. However, many GWPs have changed substantially since the SAR. In particular, the IPCC AR5 increases the radiative forcing for methane. According to AR5, the 100-year GWP for methane without climate-carbon feedbacks is 28 and with those feedbacks it is 34. The GWP of 34 is more than a 50% increase above the GWP for methane that is being assumed in CAR6 (21). In addition, using a 100-year GWP discounts the near-term impacts of methane. The 20-year GWP for methane with climate-carbon feedbacks is 86, compared to the GWP of 1 for CO2. This adds to concerns about fugitive methane emissions that would erode the advantage of natural gas versus coal.

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2 Responses to A call for congressional hearings on methane emissions from natural gas

  1. Adrian says:



    is a study by the U.S. Geological Survey which found that 15 percent of groundwater samples from 66 household wells across south-central New York contained naturally occurring methane at levels high enough to warrant monitoring or remediation, even though none of the water wells was within a mile of existing or abandoned natural gas wells.

    The levels in four of the wells were so high that water coming out of a tap could potentially be lit with a match, or be an explosive risk.

    That was WITHOUT any drilling, and the situation seems to be much worse than in Pennsylvania WITH drilling…

    • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

      The article says:
      “The testing was done in the summer of 2012 and the study area included about 1,800 square miles in parts of Broome, Tioga, Chemung, Chenango, and Delaware counties that have Marcellus Shale gas resources that the industry wants to drill. Heisig said his team didn’t specifically try to link the gas in water wells to the Marcellus formation…”
      [So, one question: is any of this linked to the shale gas deposits, even in advance of drilling?]

      “In a nearby region of northeastern Pennsylvania, Duke University scientists found that some water wells located within a mile of new gas drilling wells had higher levels of methane, compared to those farther away. State officials, meanwhile, found that some methane contamination in the area of Dimock, subject of the anti-fracking documentary Gasland,’ was caused by nearby drilling.”
      [So, another question: might drilling make the problem worse?]

      There are empirical questions. Perhaps the most important has to do with the level of fugitive atmospheric emissions, which have been measured high in some drilling areas by some of the research. We want to make sure the government research is not subjected to political pressure if the findings turn out to be politically inconvenient, e.g., to industry interests. Let the research chips fall where they may, but seems like an important area for congressional oversight.

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