*Update* Scrambling to Justify Regulations, White House Hosts Discredited Researcher for Methane Briefing

If there was ever any doubt remaining about Robert Howarth’s objectivity, this should clear that right up.  Food & Water Watch, whose goal is to ban fracking everywhere, has just announced a new addition to its board:

— Original Post June 3, 2016 —

With study after study showing that methane emissions from oil and natural gas production are exceedingly low and continuing to plummet, the White House has gone into overdrive in its effort to justify costly new regulations on the industry.

Last week, the White House invited discredited Cornell researcher Robert Howarth to give a 90 minute briefing on methane to senior staff.

Notably, just about every credible scientist working on methane has criticized Howarth’s research, including his work with activist Cornell Professor Anthony Ingraffea. Both Howarth and Ingraffea have argued that methane emissions from oil and natural gas development are enough to wipe out the fuel’s environmental advantages, a theory that has been widely panned.  Even President Obama’s former Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu (a Nobel Prize-winning physicist), said of Howarth and Ingraffea’s research: “we didn’t think it was credible.”

Other researchers who have criticized Howarth’s work include University of Chicago climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert; Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller; and Cornell earth, atmospheric sciences professor Louis Derry.  Michael Levi from the Center for Foreign Relations asked rhetorically about Howarth and Ingraffea’s research: “Is there value in debating people who don’t want to think?”

Reports from MIT, the University of Marylandmultiple reports from the U.S. Department of Energy, Carnegie Mellon and Cornell University have contradicted Howarth’s and Ingraffea’s work. Even the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which Howarth quoted at length in his White House briefing, specifically singled out Howarth’s research as lacking in credibility. On methane emissions, the IPCC states,

“While some studies estimate that around 5% of the produced gas escapes in the supply chain, other analyses estimate emissions as low as 1% (Stephenson et al., 2011; Howarth et al.,2011; Cathles et al., 2012). Central emission estimates of recent analyses are 2%─3% (+/‐1%) of the gas produced, where the emissions from conventional and unconventional gas are comparable.” (p. 19; emphasis added)

The IPCC goes on to explain 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.

That’s not to mention a new study by researchers at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand (NIWAR), which found that oil and natural gas producers are not to blame for a global increase in methane emissions. The lead author of the study, Hinrich Schaefer, told Climatewire, “Currently increasing methane levels are caused not by fossil fuel production but rather by wetlands or, more likely, agriculture.”

There’s also a new study by researchers at Oxford University which finds that focusing on methane is a distraction from what’s really important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  As lead author Raymond Pierrehumbert put it,

 “… Methane is still just a sideshow, and relative to what the U.S. needs to do to fulfill its Paris commitments with regard to keeping the warming under 2°C, even a substantial upward revision of methane leakage is almost completely irrelevant. The warming due to steady methane emissions essentially stops increasing after just two decades, and is largely reversible once the leakage stops.”

Administration Using Faulty Data  

The fact that the White House even thought of giving a 90 minute forum to someone like Howarth only adds to growing concerns about the administration’s use of faulty data in order to justify regulations that will place undue harm on the oil and natural gas industry.

report last year by NERA Economic Consulting – which has performed analyses for the U.S. Department of Energy, among others – found that EPA’s methane rule was based on a single, flawed economic study of the “social cost of methane.” The study was also authored by individuals within the EPA.

Just weeks before rolling out the final methane rule, and after years of publishing data showing low and rapidly declining methane emissions, the EPA suddenly significantly increased its estimates of methane emissions from petroleum and natural gas systems, justifying this decision by making the counterintuitive assumption that emissions from smaller sources were the same as larger sources.

Then, as Energy In Depth pointed out last week, after EPA itself acknowledged last summer that marginal wells have “inherently low” emissions so they would be exempt from the new regulations, EPA went ahead and included these wells in its regulations anyway.  EPA apparently did this on the basis of a study spearheaded by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Zavala-Araiza et. al, which claims that marginal wells can be so-called “super-emitters.”  But that study actually changes the definition of “super-emitters” in order to make this claim, defining it not as sites that emit a lot of methane but as sites where a certain percentage of that well’s methane may be leaking.  Further, a closer look at the data in the study demonstrates that marginal wells clearly represent a low component of the methane emissions universe.

Additionally, calculations by Energy In Depth show that President Obama’s broader methane mitigation strategy – which includes the EPA’s methane rule – would yield only 0.0047 degrees Celsius of avoided warming the end of the century. The EPA also projected hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits based on the value of natural gas that would be captured and sold as a result of the rule, but the value was based on natural gas prices being $4 per thousand cubic feet (mcf). The current average natural gas price is nearly half that, or about $2.16/mcf.

Now, with the White House hosting one of the most discredited researchers in the business, it’s clear that the administration needs to have a data reality check.


  1. Bill Owen says:

    Don’t forget too that Howarth’s buddy Ingraffia was humiliated at the recent trial (Ely vs Cabot), and had to confess that everythiing he’s spouted was pure speculation. There’s a video out there that shows him (Ingraffia) hiding behind a coat as he left the courtroom after his ‘testimony’.

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