A climate change campaign group has called for an investigation into allegations that high profile US research – cited in UK planning applications and parliamentary advice – under-stated methane leaks at shale gas sites.
The group, NC Warn, complained to the watchdog overseeing the US environmental regulator that two published studies used equipment which under-reported methane levels.
In a 68-page complaint, it argued that opportunities had been lost to reduce fugitive methane from fracking sites and that policy-makers had been misled. It called for the study reports to be corrected.
In the UK, one of the studies was used by Cuadrilla in two planning applications to estimate methane emissions from proposals to frack in Lancashire. The study was also cited in advice on unconventional oil and gas from the Independent Expert Scientific Panel to the Scottish Parliament.
The lead author of the studies, Dr David Allen, of University of Texas at Austin, has defended his work. He denied that measurements in the research were affected by instrument failure. (See full statement at the end of this post)
NC Warn’s complaints centre on studies published in 2013 and 2014 and commissioned by the US Environmental Defense Fund.
While some studies around this time were reporting increasing levels of methane from fracking sites in the US, the 2013 study showed much lower emissions. It has been widely cited throughout the world and used by the shale gas industry to argue that methane leaks were low and that no regulation was needed. The report was presented to staff at the White House and US Congress.
The instrument at the centre of the dispute is the Bacharach Hi-Flow Sampler. NC Warn says concerns about under-reporting by the instrument had been raised before Dr Allen’s 2013 study. But it was the inventor, Touché Howard, who proved the flaw, the group said. He showed in two papers in 2015 that sensor failure could cause the instrument not to switch from its low scale to its high scale.
This could result in under-reporting of emission rates in the Allen studies by up to 100-fold, NC Warn said. It was also concerned about problems with the Fox Flow Meter used by Dr Allen and his researchers in research published in 2014.
The group accused Dr Allen of promoting his studies, despite the warnings. It also alleged that the US environmental regulator, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), did not confront Dr Allen about the concerns.
The implications of NC Warn for the UK are unclear. The Bacharach instrument was not used in a 2015 study of methane emissions from former UK oil and gas wells for the ReFine project. This found more than a third of wells were leaking methane but the volume of gas was mostly very small.
DrillOrDrop tried to find out whether the British Geological Survey or the National Physical Laboratory is using the device in its methane monitoring projects in Lancashire and North Yorkshire. But no one was available to talk to us. We’ll update this post if the organisations respond to our request for information about their choice of instrument.
The complaint by NC Warn is however potentially significant because Dr Allen’s studies are regarded by academics and the industry as landmark research. NC Warn said they have been cited 197 times up to April 2016.
Cuadrilla used the 2013 study in the Environmental Statements for its planning application to estimate methane emissions at proposed fracking sites at Preston New Road (see pages 117 and 121) and Roseacre Wood (see pages 127 and 131)
At the public inquiry into the applications earlier this year, one of Cuadrilla’s witnesses, Mark Smith, said in in his rebuttal proof:
“Methane emissions associated with flaring are reported at section 8.7.5 of the ES [Environmental Statement of the planning application]. The source data for the methane estimates was a study undertaken in the United States2.”
The footnote links to: “Allen et al. (2013) Measurements of methane emissions at natural gas production sites in the United States (see table 16 of Appendix H of the ES)”.
The Independent Expert Scientific Panel Report on Unconventional Oil and Gas to the Scottish Parliament, published in 2014 cited the 2013 study. This concluded:
“The impact of unconventional oil and gas resources in Scotland on the Scottish Government’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gases is not definitive.”
On fugitive emissions, it said:
“In the United States, the level of fugitive emissions from shale gas operations has been estimated to range from 0.42% [Dr Allen’s conclusion] – 7.9 % of total gas production (US EPA, 2013; Allen et al, 2013; Tollefson, 2012; Howarth et al, 2011).”
Both Dr Allen’s studies are cited by BG Group under a section of its website which says:
“We are committed to driving industry action to improve data and reduce emissions of methane”
NC Warn’s case
NC Warn’s director, Jim Warren, said:
“The EPA’s failure to order feasible reductions of methane leaks and venting has robbed humanity of crucial years to slow the climate crisis. The cover-up by Allen’s team has allowed the industry to dig in for years of delay in cutting emissions – at the worst possible time.”
NC Warn also argued: “Policy makers may underestimate the impact of natural gas use on the climate and on public health (from toxic air emissions), and thus fail to take action to guard against these problems.”
It alleged that in Denton, Texas, state legislatures overrode local legislation enacted to address the concerns of citizens based on a misguided understanding of methane impacts.
NC Warn also drew attention to funding of Dr Allen’s work by the oil and gas industry and his role as chair of the EPA science advisory board at the time. It said:
“There is a clear pattern of abuse of process and conflict of interest in the data collection, preparation, and dissemination of the Allen studies. Too much was covered up and hidden from scientific scrutiny and EPA review.”
It called on the EPA watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, to:
- Investigate the group’s allegations
- Request a retraction of Dr Allen’s 2013 and 2014 studies
- Require the EPA to conduct and complete a scientifically-valid study to quantify accurately methane venting and leakage in gas production
- Investigate the use by the EPA of researchers who have industry bias and direct conflicts of interest
It also recommended the EPA set a zero emission goal for methane, institute a regime for oversight, testing and remediation of methane emissions in the gas industry and take into account the global warming potential of methane over a 20-year timeframe.
Statement by Dr David Allen
“It has been suggested that one of the instruments used in one of our methane emissions studies, published in 2013 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may experience instrument failure under certain high emission rate conditions.
“This claimed equipment failure is restricted to one of multiple types of instruments that were used. The instrument was used for only a subset of the measurements that were made. The instrument in question (HiFlow®) has been an industry standard device for the past 20 years.
“We take no position on whether all HiFlow® instruments have the instrument failure mode that has been described, however, our study team strongly asserts that the instrument we used and the measurements we made were not impacted by the claimed failure.
“That assertion is based on the fact that we had 2-3 additional, independent measurement systems that we ran in parallel with the HiFlow®. These included an Optical Gas Imager (OGI, aka infrared camera, the same technology proposed by the EPA for use in new leak detection regulations), and downwind sampling and quantification of emissions from the entire site, by independent investigators.
“In addition, we note that the measurements with the HiFlow® were made directly by highly trained personnel who operated the instrument within inches to feet of emissions being measured. At the emission rates for which the instrument failure is proposed, most of the emissions would be audible, and possibly detectable by odor.
“Operator observations may or may not be considered a parallel measurement, hence we had 2-3 systems run in parallel with the HiFlow® (Optical Gas Imaging, downwind measurements, and operator observations).
“None of these parallel systems indicated a problem with our HiFlow® instrument. All of these systems would have had to fail, simultaneously, and only at certain types of sites with the conditions that are claimed to produce the equipment failure, for our measurements to have been impacted.
“So, our study team strongly asserts that the instrument we used and the measurements we made were not impacted by the equipment failure and we have documented this in a comment and response in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.”
Statement by University of Texas, Austin
“The University of Texas welcomes any and all independent reviews of our researchers’ studies of methane emissions.
“Dr. David Allen is a scientist of the highest integrity and his peer-reviewed studies were overseen by scientific advisory panels, published in top-tier journals and have been open to public scrutiny for several years. As with all studies, researchers and critics should be able to analyze the findings and place them in the context of other research into this issue.
“Since the methane emissions studies were first announced several years ago, the researchers and university have been fully transparent about the funding and cooperation from industry and environmental groups, and Dr. Allen’s role as chair of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.”
Allen, D.T., Torres, V.M., Thomas J., et al (2013). Measurements of Methane Emissions at Natural Gas Production Sites in the United States, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). 110 (44), 17768 – 17773
DrillOrDrop always welcomes comments on posts. In order to keep the comments area safe and legal, DrillOrDrop has a new commenting policy which you can read here.