Hacks Lack Facts in Frack Attacks

Analysis: Environmentalists struggle with accuracy in anti-fracking Politico column

Hydraulic Fracturing site / AP
January 22, 2014

A pair of prominent environmentalists penned a column Tuesday for Politico Magazine attacking hydraulic fracturing littered with dishonest and incorrect claims.

The central political question of the debate over fracking, as the innovative oil and gas extraction technique is commonly known, has to do with the degree to which it impacts greenhouse gas emissions, and hence affects a changing global climate.

Representatives from 18 environmental activist groups recently wrote a letter to President Barack Obama bemoaning his commitment to an "all of the above" approach to energy, which they said will irreparably harm the earth’s climate.

The White House’s newest adviser, former Center for American Progress chairman John Podesta, defended the president’s environmental record, noting that U.S. carbon emissions are at their lowest level since the early 1990s.

Podesta did not mention natural gas, which experts credit with much of that decline. However, McKibben and Tidwell focused on the issue in their column because it underscores the environmental case for hydraulic fracturing.

Emissions associated with burning natural gas, they claimed, do not tell the full story. "Life cycle" emissions—from the point of gas extraction to the end-user—are actually significantly higher even than coal-fired power, they insist.

"If you calculate the greenhouse gas pollution emitted at every stage of the production process—drilling, piping, compression—it’s essentially just coal by another name," McKibben and Tidwell wrote.

The claim is frequently sourced to Cornell scientists Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea, who have found significantly higher life cycle emissions than are found in other studies.

Numerous government agencies, environmentalist groups, and academics have panned Howarth and Ingraffea’s work on the issue and produced their own studies showing relatively low life cycle emissions from natural gas.

"Their analysis is seriously flawed," according to three Cornell colleagues, professors in the university’s departments of earth and atmospheric sciences and chemical and biological engineering.

Howarth and Ingraffea ignored numerous mitigating factors that reduce methane emissions at the site of natural gas extraction, they wrote. As a result, their findings therefore significantly overstated the problem.

Energy research firm IHS-CERA said their work "grossly overestimates the quantities of methane that are leaking uncontrolled into the atmosphere at the well site."

Numerous other studies finding lower life cycle emissions associated with natural gas have lent weight to those critiques, even where they don’t respond directly to Howarth and Ingraffea.

Studies from two Department of Energy labs, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the National Energy Technology Laboratory, have pegged life cycle natural gas emissions at less than half that of coal-fired power.

A study conducted for the European Commission found similarly low life cycle emissions.

Left-of-center environmentalist groups, including the Breakthrough Institute and the Worldwatch Institute, have made similar life cycle emissions estimates.

Some experts have suggested that Howarth and Ingraffea have distorted data or ignored evidence in an effort to promote a political position.

"What Ingraffea is doing in continuing to claim that natural gas is as bad as coal is not a matter of looking at the same data as everybody else and drawing different conclusions," wrote University of Chicago geophysicist Raymond Pierrehumbert. "It is more a matter of distorting science in order to support a preconceived political agenda."

McKibben and Tidwell seem similarly predisposed to accept as fact claims that support their position on fracking, while ignoring reams of contradictory evidence.

Additionally, McKibben and Tidwell misrepresent the findings of studies on natural gas exports in their column.

"The DOE found that only one economic sector wins from gas exports," they write. "You guessed it: the gas industry!"

While the DOE did find that the gas industry would benefit and that other energy-intensive industries would see small declines in profits, they also asserted that the macroeconomic effects on the U.S. economy—and aggregate effects on U.S. consumers—would be positive.

McKibben and Tidwell focus specifically on the Cove Point liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in Lusby, Md. Dominion Resources, an independent oil and gas company, owns the terminal, which currently imports gas and liquefies it for transportation.

Dominion and other stakeholders have asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to approve an LNG export license for the terminal.

McKibben and Tidwell decried the possibility. "If you’re a farmer or wage-earner, too bad," they wrote. "Dominion’s profits at Cove Point are more important than the financial lives of already-struggling average Americans."

The DOE study that McKibben and Tidwell mentioned but declined to link to predicted economic benefits from increased gas exports for vast swaths of Americans.

"All export scenarios are welfare-improving for U.S. consumers," the study found.

McKibben and Tidwell note that increasing demand for U.S. natural gas would increase prices for consumers. However, "the welfare improvement is the largest under the high export scenarios even though the price impacts are also the largest," DOE found.

"Additional sources of income for U.S. consumers" as a result of increased exports, the report stated, "outweigh the loss associated with higher energy prices."

Such benefits might explain enthusiasm among labor unions for the Cove Point project. Seventy-five union workers from locals from Maryland visited Annapolis and Washington, D.C., this month to stress to lawmakers that the Cove Point project will create jobs and tax revenue, and have positive environmental benefits.

The presidents of national unions representing construction workers, maritime professionals, and marine engineers, recently joined industry leaders in calling for FERC to sign off on LNG exports from Cove Point. Representatives from sixteen union locals also signed the letter.

"The case for the Cove Point natural gas liquefaction project and exporting natural gas is clear," they wrote. "The benefits both economically and environmentally are real. The support is both broad and deep."