*UPDATE* EPA Data Show 66 Percent Drop in Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas

Source:  Energy In Depth

UPDATE (2/9/2013, 10:45am ET): Bloomberg has granted our request for a headline correction, which now reads “Oil, Gas Production Among Top Greenhouse-Gas Sources.”

—Original post, February 7, 2013—

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s latest report on greenhouse gases (GHGs) shows a significant drop in methane emissions from natural gas development, as compared to EPA’s prior data. The latest reporting from EPA suggests methane emissions from petroleum and natural gas systems were 82.6 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2011. Last year, EPA’s GHG Inventory – which assessed data for 2010 – estimated that natural gas systems alone emitted more than 215 million metric tons, while petroleum systems added another 31 million metric tons.

Taken together, EPA’s latest data on petroleum and natural gas suggest a 66 percent decline in methane emissions from the agency’s prior estimates. Here are some other noteworthy findings from EPA:

Oil and natural gas systems now emit fewer methane emissions than waste facilities, which include landfills and water treatment plants.

NOTE: EPA previously said petroleum and natural gas systems “are the largest source of CH4 [methane] emissions from industry in the United States.” That obviously has changed.

Total GHG emissions from petroleum and natural gas systems are roughly ten times smaller than the largest source: power plants.

Emissions from power plants declined from 2010 to 2011, due in large part to the increased use of natural gas.

Overall GHG emissions in the United States declined by about three percent from 2010 to 2011.

It is worth noting, however, that it’s difficult to make an exact apples-to-apples comparison between EPA’s previous estimates of total methane emissions from oil and gas and the data released this week. The agency’s latest data represent “85-90 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions,” according to the EPA, as they exclude smaller sources in the existing categories. The data also exclude agriculture, which can be a significant source of methane: EPA’s prior inventory of GHGs, released in 2012, showed enteric fermentation from livestock and manure management were two of the top five sources of methane in the United States.

Nevertheless, the bigger picture is certainly good news: greenhouse gas emissions are falling in the United States, led in part by an affordable and abundant fuel like natural gas. And given all of the attention on methane emissions, it’s great to see that the current data suggest a significant decline from the agency’s previous estimate.

Of course, you’d probably never know many of these facts if you accepted the media’s take on EPA’s data.

E&E News said the report revealed “massive methane emissions” from the oil, natural gas, and coal sectors, identifying only the methane-as-CO2-equivalent number for petroleum and natural gas systems – 82.6 million metric tons. As mentioned above, 82.6 million metric tons is two-thirds less than EPA’s prior estimate, some helpful context that was unfortunately ignored. Scientific American re-posted the E&E story, adding that methane emissions are “on the rise” in the United States, apparently unaware of the actual data related to oil and natural gas.

A separate piece for E&E led with the statement that petroleum and natural gas systems “accounted for 40 percent of the methane emissions reported to the U.S. EPA in 2011.” Again, no mention of the drop in EPA’s estimates, nor the acknowledgment that landfills, treatment plants, and other waste facilities had overtaken oil and gas with higher methane emissions.

But the worst offender was Bloomberg, which ran with the headline, “Fracking Seen by EPA as No. 2 Emitter of Greenhouse Gases” – a demonstrably false characterization. (That’s disappointing, too; the story that followed the bogus headline was actually decently written and captured a lot of the critical details from EPA’s report.)

Petroleum and natural gas systems were listed by EPA as the second largest GHG emitter, although the difference in emissions between number one (power plants) and number two was enormous: 2.2 billion tons versus 225 million tons. Petroleum and natural gas systems also include things like LNG import facilities, offshore oil and gas wells, pipelines and compressor stations – none of which could ever accurately be described as “fracking.”

In fact, several facilities studied were in places like the North Slope of Alaska and even Hawaii, where no hydraulic fracturing is even occurring. Additionally, some of the midstream infrastructure analyzed throughout the country has been in operation for decades and was constructed long before the “shale boom” ever began.

Even worse for Bloomberg is that EPA’s page explaining all of the components of its “petroleum and natural gas systems” category never once mentions the words “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking.” That means the EPA said nothing about emissions specifically from hydraulic fracturing, rendering absurd Bloomberg’s suggestion that the process was somehow “seen by EPA” as the number two emitter.

But don’t just take our word for it. John Quigley, the former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said of Bloomberg’s headline: “Imprecise language misinforms and clouds the discussions we should be having and the actions we should be taking.” A reporter for SNL Energy tweeted: “Bloomberg appears to be labeling ALL oil and gas activity as #fracking. Kind of a stretch, dontcha think?”

Interestingly, FuelFix.com (a blog for the Houston Chronicle) ran Bloomberg’s story and even used the same headline. A few hours later, however, the blog changed the headline to “Houston companies among top polluters on federal list” – not exactly a sparkling gem, but certainly a far cry from the previous misappropriation of emissions to hydraulic fracturing. It’s also telling that even a news outlet running a Bloomberg wire story was not comfortable using Bloomberg’s designated headline on its website.

Despite the media’s penchant for alarmist headlines and what often appears to be an insatiable need to link every aspect of oil and gas development to hydraulic fracturing, the facts are clear: EPA’s latest report on greenhouse gas emissions made several reassuring observations, including declines not only in greenhouse gases across the entire country, but also in methane emissions from oil and gas systems specifically.