EPA Report Gives Pro-Fracking Camp a Win

New estimates about methane leakages add more complexity to the fracking debate.

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A worker checks water levels and temperatures in a series of tanks at an Encana Oil & Gas Inc. hydraulic fracturing operation at a gas drilling site outside Rifle, Colorado.

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Hydraulic fracturing has generated many byproducts in recent years – more jobs, more tax revenue for city and state governments, more domestically produced natural gas and crude oil, and of course, more controversy.

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Though opponents have argued that fracking substantially contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, new estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency show that the leakage of methane – a greenhouse gas – from wells, pipelines and other infrastructure is much lower than previously believed, thanks in large part to better pollution controls implemented by the industry itself, according to the Associated Press. Recently released EPA estimates of methane emissions between 1990 and 2010 are 20 percent less than previous estimates, the AP reported, even as natural gas production has grown by almost 40 percent during the same period.

To the oil and gas industry, the EPA's revisions are proof that the environmental impact of fracking — which involves injecting millions of gallons of pressurized, water, sand and chemicals into well heads to break up gas trapped in shale rock formations — can be contained and managed.

"The new EPA estimates reshape the entire fracking debate," says Chris Faulkner, CEO of Dallas, Texas-based Breitling Oil & Gas. "It shows the industry is taking proactive steps to reduce escaped methane emissions and has made great progress. What environmentalists don't want to admit is that the oil and gas industry [has] a vested interest to capture the gas and not flare or vent it. It's a commodity and it has real value."

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Terry Engelder, a Penn State geologist who's studied the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania for decades, agrees. "Leaking methane during fracking is an engineering problem," he wrote an in email. "The EPA report suggests that [the] industry is getting even better at finding leaks and fixing them, particularly with the construction of modern pipelines."

It's also added another dimension to an already complicated debate dividing green groups. While some environmental groups including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club see natural gas as the lesser of two evils when it comes to controlling greenhouse gas emissions — natural gas emits far fewer than other fuels such as coal — others point to the fact that natural gas is primarily made up of methane, a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide.

Methane is "an even worse greenhouse gas than CO2, and when you frack you leak some of it into the air," author and environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote in a guest post on the political news and discussion site Politix, assailing fracking for its negative impact on the climate. "Government scientists recently said the one field they'd tested extensively was leaking 9 percent of its gas into the air. Even at a third [of] this rate, fracked gas would be worse for the atmosphere than coal."

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Though the EPA's downward revisions of methane leakage won't likely muffle the objections of anti-fracking groups, it could provide a firmer footing for those who believe natural gas is the ideal "bridge fuel" as the nation transitions from its heavy reliance on dirty, carbon intensive coal to a cleaner, more diverse energy portfolio that includes more renewables such as solar and wind.

"The reasons for arguing that natural gas is equivalent to coal as an environmental threat has, in effect, been removed from the debate by the EPA," Engelder added.

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