*Update* Top Five Science Denying Claims in Bill McKibben’s Latest Call to Ban Fracking

UPDATE (2:26 pm ET, 3/25/16): Ted Nordhaus of The Breakthrough Institute, a pragmatic environmental think tank, also took issue with several of the inaccuracies from McKibben’s op-ed in his piece headlined “Bill McKibben’s Misleading New Chemistry.”

Nordhaus was particularly critical of McKibben’s characterization of the Harvard study that McKibben claimed demonstrated fracking is to blame for a rise in U.S. methane emissions:

“The Harvard study, in fact, suggests nothing of the sort. … They concluded that methane emissions in North America had risen significantly since 2002. But they also concluded that while the United States has seen a 20% increase in oil and gas production since 2002, “the spatial pattern of the methane increase… does not clearly point to these sources.”

Nordhaus also called McKibben out for ignoring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand (NIWAR) study that has found the rise in methane emissions are coming from biogenic sources, such as agriculture:

While the Harvard study doesn’t clearly point to a source of the increase in atmospheric     methane concentrations, another prominent and widely covered study—one that McKibben surely must have been aware of—does. Using a novel method to trace atmospheric methane measurements back to their source, that study, published this month in the journal Science, concludes that the rise in atmospheric concentrations of methane since 2006 is most likely attributable to agricultural sources, not oil and gas production.

Nordhaus also criticized McKibben for cherry picking studies from anti-fracking activists such as Anthony Ingraeffea, Robert Howarth and others to misrepresent scientific consensus on natural gas leakage rates in order to advance the narrative that methane leakage is negating the very real climate benefits of reduced CO2 reductions attributable to increased use of natural gas for electrical generation.

These studies are outliers. What the balance of evidence shows—including studies by EPA, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the University of Texas—is that leak rates, while in some cases higher than EPA estimates, are well below levels at which they would begin to significantly erode the benefits of switching from coal to gas.”

“… Even if one accepts the higher estimates that McKibben relies upon, the impact on the climate is marginal. As my colleague Alex Trembath demonstrated in a literature review last summer,modeling of the overall warming impact of a large scale shift from coal-to-gas generation in the power sector (as opposed to simply using theoretical global warming potential conversions) consistently finds the contributions from methane to be a marginal factor in determining overall warming impacts.”

Nordhaus gave McKibben credit for bringing the climate change issue to the forefront. But, as Nordhaus points out in his piece, McKibben’s deliberate mischaracterization of the facts does not help the environmentalist movements’ cause:

“… I’ll say now publicly what I have said to him privately for many years. So long as the climate movement is limited to NIMBY (not in my back yard) fracking opponents, anti-nuclear greens, and renewables fabulists, it is unlikely to achieve either the broad social consensus that will be necessary to advance aggressive action, nor action that is particularly likely to achieve the levels of carbon reduction that will be necessary to significantly mitigate climate change.”

Original post, March 23, 2016

Anti-fossil fuel activist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben was out with a new op-ed in The Nation today, hyperbolically headlined “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry.” In the piece, McKibben unsurprisingly rehashes the completely debunked claim that methane emissions from fracking are negating significant domestic CO2 reductions:

“The global-warming fight can’t just be about carbon dioxide any longer. Those local environmentalists, from New York State to Tasmania, who have managed to enforce fracking bans are doing as much for the climate as they are for their own clean water. That’s because  fossil fuels are the problem in global warming—and fossil fuels don’t come in good and bad flavors. Coal and oil and natural gas have to be left in the ground. All of them.”

But in order to make this claim McKibben had to engage in some serious science denial.  Here is a look at the five most glaring inaccurate claims from in his op-ed.

McKibben Claim #1: “(Robert) Howarth and (Anthony) Ingraffea began producing a series of papers claiming that if even a small percentage of the methane leaked—maybe as little as 3 percent—then fracked gas would do more climate damage than coal. And their preliminary data showed that leak rates could be at least that high: that somewhere between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of methane gas from shale-drilling operations actually escapes into the atmosphere.”

FACT: McKibben acknowledges that Howarth and Ingraeffea’s estimates have been “roundly attacked” by industry but he fails to mention the fact that their research has also been utterly discredited by the world’s most prominent climate scientists. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which McKibben has called the “gold standard” for years, explained in its latest climate assessment:

“A key development since AR4 is the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal-drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply and allowed for a more extensive switching of power and heat production from coal to gas (IEA, 2012b); this is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.” (emphasis added)

The IPCC also found that even “[t]aking into account revised estimates for fugitive emissions, recent lifecycle assessment indicate that specific GHG emission are reduced by one half” as more power plants are powered by natural gas.

Reports from MIT, the University of Maryland, multiple reports from the U.S. Department of Energy, Carnegie Mellon and even Cornell University have contradicted Howarth and Ingraffea’s research or found methane leakage rates that are far below what they have claimed.  University of Chicago climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert, Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller, and Cornell earth and atmospheric sciences professor Louis Derry have publicly criticized Ingraffea’s work.

A recent Muller report illustrated why Howarth’s claim of a 7.9 percent leakage rate is an extremely high and misleading estimate:

“They obtained this number by taking their highest value for leakage from a conventional gas well, 6% and adding on an additional leakage of 1.9% that could occur during flowback operation (done for shale gas wells but not for conventional gas operations). Such leakage happens if the flowback methane is vented to the atmosphere rather than flared. They were being cautionary; in their data from 5 wells, only one had substantial (1.3%) methane emissions during flowback.”

“A more reasonable reading of Howarth would not include the very high potential emissions from transport, storage and distribution, which added 3.6% to the upper range. That leaves the   total of 4.3%, more consistent with other estimates.”

McKibben Claim #2: “… It’s even possible that America’s contribution to global warming increased during the Obama years… Under the worst-case scenario—one that assumes that methane is extremely potent and extremely fast-acting — the United States has actually slightly increased its greenhouse-gas emissions from 2005 to 2015.”

FACT: No it hasn’t. If anything President Obama’s climate legacy is one of dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, thanks to the increased use of natural gas in electricity generation.

In addition to the IPCC, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) has found, since 2005, that natural gas has prevented more than one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted from power plants in the United States.  Meanwhile, by comparison, the use of renewable energy has prevented only 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.  EIA also noted as natural gas fired electricity generation ramped up, power plant greenhouse gas emissions reached a 27-year low in April 2015.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency’s (IEA) has just released data finding,

“In the United States, emissions declined by 2% (in 2015), as a large switch from coal to natural gas use in electricity generation took place.”

IEA previously hailed the “decline in energy-related CO2 emissions in the United States” as “one of the bright spots in the global picture” and went on to note, “One of the key reasons has been the increased availability of natural gas, linked to the shale gas revolution.”

The Breakthrough Institute (BTI) – an environmental group founded by individuals whom Time Magazine recognized as “heroes of the environment” – released a report in 2013 that demonstrated that natural gas has prevented 17 times more carbon dioxide emissions than wind, solar, and geothermal combined.

EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory shows that that U.S. CO2 and methane emissions declined significantly from 2005-2015, from 6,868 million metric tons CO2 equivalent in 2005 to 6,207 mmt CO2 eq. in 2015.

McKibben’s “worst case scenario” is based on Howarth’s claim that methane’s global warming potential is 86 to 105 over a 10 to 20-year period:

“If you combine Howarth’s estimates of leakage rates and the new standard values for the heat-trapping potential of methane, then the picture of America’s total greenhouse-gas emissions  over the last 15 years looks very different: Instead of peaking in 2007 and then trending downward, as the EPA has maintained, our combined emissions of methane and carbon dioxide have gone steadily and sharply up during the Obama years, Howarth says. We closed coal plants and opened methane leaks, and the result is that things have gotten worse.”

But a recent Muller report illustrates why the latter assumption is not in line with the scientific consensus:

“When comparing coal to methane for equal electric power, the 20-year global warming  potential of methane compared to carbon dioxide is 11, not 86. The GWP of 86 assumes equal  weights of methane and CO2. But: (a) methane is lighter than CO2, molecule per molecule, by a  factor of 0.36; (b) coal produces only 0.60 of the heat, molecule per molecule (since is contains less hydrogen) and (c) for equal heat, coal produces only 0.61 as much electric power. Combine these, and the GWP of methane, for equal power, is reduced from 86 to 11. When considering substituting a methane plant for an equal power coal plant, 11 is the appropriate GWP, not 86. This is not in dispute among scientists.”

McKibben Claim #3: “Harvard researchers published an explosive paper in Geophysical Research Letters. Using satellite data and ground observations, they concluded that the nation as a whole is leaking methane in massive quantities. Between 2002 and 2014, the data showed that US methane emissions increased by more than 30 percent, accounting for 30 to 60 percent of an enormous spike in methane in the entire planet’s atmosphere. this new Harvard data, which comes on the heels of other aerial surveys showing big methane leakage, suggests that our new natural-gas infrastructure has been bleeding methane into the atmosphere in record quantities.”

FACT: First, the Harvard study McKibben refers to explicitly notes the increased methane emissions it found cannot be attributed to any specific source and do not clearly point to oil and gas production:

“… The US has seen a 20% increase in oil and gas production [US IEA, 2015] and a 9-fold increase in shale gas production from 2002 to 2014 (bottom panel of Figure 1) but the spatial pattern of  the methane increase seen by GOSAT (Greenhouse Gas Observing Satellite) does not clearly  point to these sources. More work is needed to attribute the observed increase to specific sources.”

Indeed, as EID recently pointed out and the following graphic from the study shows, there is no correlation between existing U.S. shale plays and areas the researchers found increased methane emissions. The graphic shows methane emissions are actually greater in many areas with no shale development and/or little to no oil and gas production.

1

Many of the areas highlighted in red to illustrate increased methane emissions – including Illinois, south-central Pennsylvania, far northern and far southern California, New York state, North Carolina and Nebraska – have no shale development. Other states highlighted in red such as Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri and Georgia have no oil and gas production at all, yet have seen huge spikes in methane emissions, according to the study.

Harvard’s data actually supports the conclusions of a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand (NIWAR) study that determined increased methane emissions are instead coming from wetlands and agriculture. Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota and Missouri just happen to be huge agricultural states.

McKibben even acknowledges these facts in his op-ed at the same time as inferring blame falls on fracking:

“The Harvard study wasn’t designed to show why US methane emissions were growing—in  other parts of the world, as new research makes clear, cattle and wetlands seem to be causing  emissions to accelerate. But the spike that the satellites recorded coincided almost perfectly with the era when fracking went big-time.”

McKibben Claim #4: “The trouble for the fracking establishment was that new research kept backing up Howarth and Ingraffea…”

FACT: Study after study has found that emissions are far lower than what Howarth and Ingraffea have claimed – and far below what is required for natural gas to have dramatic environmental benefits.

2

Even the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) – whose studies were used by the EPA to justify new regulations on oil and gas methane emissions – released nearly a dozen studies in 2015 (three of which are included in the graphic above). These studies found very low methane leakage rates of between 1.2 and 1.9 percent.

McKibben Claim #5: “In the Delaware Valley, after a fracking company tried to lease his family’s farm, a young filmmaker named Josh Fox produced one of the classic environmental documentaries of all time, Gasland, which became instantly famous for its shot of a man lighting on fire the methane flowing from his water faucet.”

FACT: McKibben, of course, falls back on the most debunked documentary in history with the flaming faucets that have proven to be a fraud. As EID has noted many times, two years before Gasland was even released, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) investigated the flaming faucet of the first film and determined that the landowner had drilled his water well through four separate coal seams, which were loaded with methane.  “There are no indications of oil & gas related impacts to water well,” according to the COGCC report. As for the flaming hose in Gasland II, the Texas District Count issued a ruling in 2012, which found that the landowner had conspired with a local consultant to “intentionally attach a garden hose to a gas vent – not to a water line” to create a “deceptive video.”

By merely mentioning Gasland and characterizing the film as “reporting,” McKibben’s arguments lose credibility with any objective observers.

Conclusion

Although methane emissions have suddenly become the obsession of anti-fracking activists like McKibben, they are just a small piece of the global greenhouse gas pie. In 2013, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were 6,811.1 MMT CO2 Eq, meaning methane emissions from oil and natural gas systems (232.4 MMT) represent only about 3.4 percent of all the greenhouse gases emitted in the United States.

Meanwhile, natural gas has done more to mitigate climate change, which McKibben has called the “world’s greatest threat,” than any other agreement or government scheme. So he wants to stop all that progress?

 

Comments

  1. Tried to log on to The Nation to comment on some of the points made in your/this article but in order to do so, but one has to subscribe to their magazine (essentially you have to pay for the privilege of commenting!), something I’m not willing to do. One easy way of making it harder to point out these “inaccuracies” of McKibben’s article.

  2. Randy Verret says:

    I weigh in on the enviro-blogs every once in a while. Many of these sites don’t allow comment. Of the ones that do and don’t require a subscription, I find most of them to be quite “inhospitable” to anyone who does not agree with their agenda. Truly SAD that we cannot have a spirited & intelligent debate on these critical energy & environmental issues of the day…

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