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How Anti-Fracking Activists Deny Science on Air Emissions

Steve Everley's picture
Energy In Depth
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  • Aug 13, 2013 9:30 pm GMT

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A common talking point among critics of hydraulic fracturing is that they somehow own “the science” on shale development. The industry is merely raising doubt about scientific studies, they claim – just enough to confuse the public and make them think there’s a legitimate debate. As the Washington Post recently characterized Gasland Part II director Josh Fox’s opinion:

“Fox frets in the movie that all the industry needs to do is instill doubt about his charges, comparing the gas drillers’ campaign to the one by cigarette makers in the 1950s and 1960s to counter claims of the health dangers of smoking.”

But reality tells a much different story. In fact, it is often opponents of hydraulic fracturing who categorically ignore scientific studies that contradict their own beliefs. Whether it’s groundwater contamination or air pollution, earthquakes or well casing failure rates – the available data, when taken in their entirety, tell a fundamentally different story from what critics have alleged. More often than not, activists leverage anecdotes and examples devoid of their full context in order to cast the widest net and implicate “fracking” as an inherent threat – a “tornado on the horizon” that kills people, as activist Sandra Steingraber puts it.

If anyone is “instilling doubt” about what most people would recognize as a consensus, it is more likely those committed to halting the use of hydraulic fracturing.

We’ll explore this phenomenon issue by issue over the next few days, and we’ll start with the subject of air emissions and climate change.

A perfect example of the “cast doubt” agenda is the activism of Cornell Professor Tony Ingraffea, who recently called shale gas a “gangplank” to increased global warming, due to “leaks of methane” during production and transmission. Ingraffea’s research on this subject (done in partnership with his Cornell colleague Robert Howarth) has been quoted by activists across the country as the final word on the subject, most often in the context of emissions from shale gas being “worse than coal.”

Ingraffea’s opinion, meanwhile, might be the most marginalized one in recent memory.

Here are but a few examples of research that contradict Ingraffea’s thesis that shale gas development (including hydraulic fracturing) suffers from astronomically high methane leakage rates:

  • Cornell Univ.: “Using more reasonable leakage rates and bases of comparison, shale gas has a GHG footprint that is half and perhaps a third that of coal.”
  • Univ. of Maryland: “GHG impacts of shale gas are…only 56% that of coal.… [A]rguments that shale gas is more polluting than coal are largely unjustified.”
  • Carnegie Mellon Univ.: “Natural gas from the Marcellus shale has generally lower life cycle GHG emissions than coal for production of electricity in the absence of any effective carbon capture and storage processes, by 20-50% depending upon plant efficiencies and natural gas emissions variability.”
    • *NOTE: Study partially funded by the Sierra Club
  • Mass. Institute of Technology: “Although fugitive emissions from the overall natural gas sector are a proper concern, it is incorrect to suggest that shale gas-related hydraulic fracturing has substantially altered the overall GHG intensityof natural gas production.”
    • *NOTE: Coauthor is a lead author of the forthcoming Fifth Assessment Report for the IPCC
  • National Energy Technology Laboratory (U.S. DOE): “Natural gas-fired baseload power production has life cycle greenhouse gas emissions 42 to 53 percent lower than those for coal-fired baseload electricity, after accounting for a wide range of variability and compared across different assumptions of climate impact timing.”
  • Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis/NREL: “Based on analysis of more than 16,000 sources of air-pollutant emissions reported in a state inventory of upstream and midstream natural gas industry, life cycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with electricity generated from Barnett Shale gas extracted in 2009 were found to be very similar to conventional natural gas and less than half those of coal-fired electricity generation.”
  • AEA Technology (for the European Commission): “In our analysis, emissions from shale gas generation are significantly lower (41% to 49%) than emissions from electricity generated from coal. This is on the basis of methane having a 100 year GWP of 25. This finding is consistent [with] most other studies into the GHG emissions arising from shale gas.”
  • Worldwatch Institute: “[W]e conclude that on average, U.S. natural gas-fired electricity generation still emitted 47 percent less GHGs than coal from source to use using the IPCC’s 100-year global warming potential for methane of 25.”
  • The Breakthrough Institute: “The climate benefits of natural gas are real and are significant. Recent lifecycle assessments studies confirm that natural gas has just half as much global warming potential as coal.”

Meanwhile, peer-reviewed findings from ExxonMobil’s research arm matched what countless other experts have found with respect to low lifetime GHG emissions from shale gas. Many scientists and environmental experts have also criticized Ingraffea’s research specifically as “biased” and even flat out “wrong.”

Ingraffea does also cite limited research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that found high leakage rates in the western United States. Groups like the Sierra Club similarly leverage those studies, claiming the findings “confirm” high, industry-wide leakage rates. Food & Water Watch says the NOAA findings indicate that EPA “drastically underestimated” total leakage. EPA’s data are industry-wide, NOAA’s are not.

But in addition to a fairly definitive and peer-reviewed rebuttal from Michael Levi – who said the NOAA conclusions were flat out “unsupportable” – even the Environmental Defense Fund said “conclusions should not be drawn about total leakage based on these preliminary, localized reports.”

Many environmental groups and activists, however, have done exactly that: taken the NOAA findings and extrapolated them to an industry-wide indictment, which even the authors of the studies themselves have said should not be done.

To be sure, there is still a need for more data on methane emissions, and the industry has taken an active role in helping researchers on that subject. Several companies have partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund on a major study to calculate a more comprehensive methane leakage rate, the results of which are due sometime this year.

Photo Credit: Fracking and Emissions/wikimedia commons

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Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on Aug 13, 2013

1) Shale fracking sits on the shelf until almost all federal environmental laws can get worked around – early 2000s and really gets going when Wall Street muscles natural gas up to $11 around 2007/2008.

2) Fracking goes gangbusters in States so corrupt and completely innept at environmental protection they make Illinois look good: Texas, Lousiana, Arkansas and Wyoming

3) Fracking goes to Pennsylvania with politicians and consultants leading the charge.

4) Shale oil fracking starts up big time in North Dakota – once the coast is clear, i.e. Obama says he’s an oil and gas man.

5) Environmental impact starts happening in shale areas. But those states don’t care. Its residents don’t care. Except the ones living in and around the well fields. But we are talking States with political structures similar to Cicero, IL.

6) Fracking goes to New York – gets stymied by Hollywood and Junior League types. But no biggy, the Marcellus up in New York sucks and the Utica kind of does too.

7) Environmental scientists and engineers working in geology, geochemistry, fluid extraction, porous media transport and fate of hydrocarbons in the subsurface and atmosphere begin monitoring studies and slowly submits reports, which comes out in dribs and drabs. Whether its academia, government or blogs. Yes some of the environmental megaphone blogs make an issue of these findings. 

8) US EPA has bailed from oversight of PA, WY, AR and TX – probably due to political reasons –  eventhough contamination is apparently previlant and coming from extraction operations both from hydraulic fracking and from subsurface releases.

9) Fellows and experts at this blog, Heartland Institute, Breakthrough Institute, many environmental NGOs, Dot Earth/New York Times and Mike Levi of CFR go full out to pat down impact conerns to the subsurface, surface and air concerning hydraulic fracking. Levi is an energy and security consultant for god sakes. He’s smart – but not any good at environmental protection issues. He’s pushing fracking and other fossil fuels for security purposes – that’s his thing.

10) Fracking companies put gag orders on a family and the kids in Pennsylvania. What’s a kid’s silence when there’s boatloads of money to be made on degrading the family’s land?

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on Aug 14, 2013

Here’s the Henry Hub data for natural gas:

I’d say I’m pretty much right. 2005 had a daily spike at $15 in Dec 2005. By Jan. 2006 it was back down to $8. Gas remained between $4 and $8 until hitting a high of around $12 in Jul 2008. Falling like a rock after the 2008 financial collapse. It looks like price increases and subsequent falls have more to do with national elections and finance than supply and demand – by the cycle of the graph linked above.

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on Aug 14, 2013

So his point was that fracking is being sold similarly to real estate around 2005? I must of missed that then. I thought he was berating environmental protection concerns and economic prudence to simply push hydraulic fracking.

David Rickmers's picture
David Rickmers on Aug 15, 2013

The author is correct. We should treat methane like we treat coal and phase it out as quickly as possible. There is no industrial base to cripple in the USA. Just 50,000,000 drive thrus. People can walk. China is going backwards. 20 years ago everyone rode bikes and you could breathe.

David Newell's picture
David Newell on Aug 15, 2013

“How Anti-Fracking Activists Deny Science on Air Emissions”

a provocative heading, to be sure.




Mr. Rickmer’s pointed out a salient exemplar of the nature of the issue, in his comment..


“People can walk. China is going backwards.

20 years ago everyone rode bikes and you could breathe”





Sorry, Mr. Everly, but all of history in regard  to the industry for which you are an apologist, or spokesperson, points to the apparent fact that we need to quit burning hydrocrbons. 

This whole paradigm of “us versus them” has to go, and the current “Price per unit consumed” is extraneous.

“Business as usual” ain’t gonna work.  No more drilling, no more pumping : 

establish a future cut off date and stick to it.


I suspect this looks “radical” right now, but look at it again every ten years,

and wish that we HAD done it.


UNTIL we get Direct Air Capture to make a serious dent in circulating CO2,

NO MORE BURNING of fossil fuels!





Tim Havel's picture
Tim Havel on Aug 15, 2013

Wikipedia on

“… was founded on June 10, 1929 by President Herbert Hoover.[1][2][3] It is headquartered in Washington, D.C..[1]

In 2012, it produced the documentary Truthland, a response to Gasland.”

Enough said?

Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on Aug 16, 2013

Not enough said for me.  What are you implying?  I am sure that a film made by an industry group is very likely to have a strong inherent bias in favor of the industry. The title “Truthland” is therefore very Orwellian. Is this what you’re implying?

Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on Aug 16, 2013

Right.  The NOAA study uses actual measurements, whereas the other studies I’ve read are all based on spot measurements at fittings only, and finding the differences in claimed recovered methane versus shipped methane, i.e. very unwieldy methodology. Direct measurements are preferable in terms of reliability. Other studies simply assume, a priori, that they know where all the leaks are occuring, and leave out completely the possibility of *seepage* — gas seeping through the ground, not out of the well head or fittings, but from the surrounding ground. That is a glaring omission in those industry-backed studies.


Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on Aug 16, 2013

This is the worst kind of enviro-bashing. It’s a total polemic.

I have been reading studies on this topic for a year now, and the main problem is that few people are doing actual research that will answer the question. The NOAA study is based on empirical evidence. Other studies that show lower methane leakage rates use few measurements of their own and typically rely on some shaky math based on industry estimates to come up with their numbers. I am sure you can see how that is problematic. 

I think the author’s point is more true in reverse — industry lackeys are more inclined to deny actual data, and to use existing texts in bad faith to “prove” their agenda, and to keep us on the gangplank of methane emissions for as long as possible while they extract the true resource — their profits — at the expense of all the people of the Earth.

It’s a ntural tendency for a group with a vested interest to use data to support their interests, even while it may not be completely in good faith. Industry does so, for private interest. It’s rare for a good study to be done that would even give a fair chance to defenders of the Earth to get the data they need to make their point, which is not for selfish interest, but for the good of the Earth — the best kind of self-interest, which hopes to defend the well-being of all. These tendencies of human nature explain why people like myself use the NOAA study to show that fracking is not as clean as paid PR people say it is. Should i be ashamed of that? Or perhaps i should be proud to be using my time freely, with no self-interest except to see my planet cared for, to counteract the industry’s heavy bias.



Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on Aug 16, 2013

I agree that more, and better, research needs to be done. But, in the meantime, the industry is fracking away as fast as possible, because they know their time may run out soon.

What happened to precaution?  In testing new drugs, the drugs are not given to the public until the results are in, and they are proved reasonably safe. But when it comes to the well-being of the Earth itself, we do the opposite? We let the industry do their worst while they actively obfuscate the science? Makes no sense.

And i mean that last bit. The industry has tentacles in science, as well as in the EPA and state environmental protection agencies. They know their game, and they play it well. They get paid to play. Consultants of the industry write papers, join up with institutions like MIT who take lots of money from the industry and create new centers to “study” the industry — paid for by the industry. It seems too obvious to need to point it out, but i find that people remain unaware of the depth of the problem. It is really a page from the tobacco industry, in many ways. It’s vile and ugly, and i would not care except that they are destroying MY planet, my Earth on which i would like to raise children and eventually have grandchildren. I would like them to inherit an Earth worth living on.

So pardon me for caring.

Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on Aug 16, 2013

By the way, since i’ve been looking into this issue, readin papers that don’t actually use measurements, i have been saying that we need a study that uses dozens or hundreds of gas-capture domes on the ground, with methane detectors in each.

If we have been able to measure tiny amounts of methane produced by a plant in a laboratory, then we’d surely be able to detect significant methane seeping from the ground. This is needed, and we really should have a moratorium on fracking until we know the results.

We also need a carbon tax, to use the market to shift our energy usage to a more sensible pattern. We also need to work on international relations around this, because it’s a global problem. A carbon tax can have border adjustments that encourage other countries — China and India in particular — to enact strong carbon taxes as well. We can do this. We just need to see clearly who are the obstructionists with personal monetary agendas, and who is speaking from good faith.

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