A study released Monday that was co-financed by one of the highest-profile environmentalists in the country undercuts a chief objection to the innovative natural gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing.
The study, conducted by scientists at the University of Texas Austin and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed small amounts of methane emissions associated with hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking.
"Based on the best information available to us today, shale has a clear benefit when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions," said Steve Everley, a spokesman for the industry website Energy In Depth, citing the study.
The findings could weaken the environmentalist case against fracking, which relies in large measure on the contention that methane leaks at the site of natural gas extraction reduce or eliminate any greenhouse gas emission benefits associated with its use for electricity generation.
That contention relies primarily on the work of two scientists who have produced research showing high methane emissions associated with the fracking process itself.
One of those scientists, Cornell University geochemist Robert Howarth, told the Associated Press that the study released on Monday is "good news," though he noted it represents "a best-case scenario."
The study was funded in part by Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist who has become highly active in national politics in the past year, backing environmentalist Democrats such as Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and Virginia Gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.
Steyer’s support for the University of Texas came by way of the Environmental Defense Fund, which helped finance the study.
He and his wife, Kat Taylor, are listed among individuals who provided "major funding for the EDF’s 30-month methane research series, including their portion of the University of Texas study."
Steyer has previously endorsed fracking as a means to bridge the gap between carbon-intensive coal-powered electricity and a more renewable energy-reliant power grid.
"I am one of the people who believes that we're going to end up fracking responsibly, and that it's not a long-term solution, but it's going to get us to kill coal," Steyer said at a climate conference in April.
"If we really knock out all those coal plants and didn't use natural gas right now, I don't know what we'd do for the permanent fuel," he added.
Pro-fracking groups say Steyer’s more moderate position on fracking, despite his environmentalist bona fides otherwise, demonstrates how extreme the anti-fracking position really is.
An industry source called Steyer’s support for the practice "the dirty little secret most far-left environmental activists don’t know yet."
"That revelation probably wouldn’t go over well with his friends and allies like Bill McKibben who want to draw the line and oppose all fossil fuels," the source said. "But we would certainly hope Steyer would take this opportunity to share the results of this latest study he helped fund with them."
"Somehow we doubt he has the courage to do so," he added.
Steyer’s position is similar to that of President Barack Obama, who has praised the ongoing natural gas boom as a means to reduce carbon emissions by replacing coal with gas as a means to generate electricity.
"Burning natural gas is about one-half as carbon-intensive as coal, which can make it a critical ‘bridge fuel’ for many countries as the world transitions to even cleaner sources of energy," according to the president’s recently released Climate Action Plan.
Environmentalists have criticized Obama for that position.
"It’s time for him to represent those who elected him, not big oil and gas," one anti-fracking activist recently said of the president.