The amount of methane released into the atmosphere during shale gas drills is disputed, with one new industry-funded report suggesting it could be less than previously thought.
But asked whether there should be mandatory testing for methane leaks at European shale drills, Jos Delbeke, the director of the European Commission’s climate department told EurActiv: “We must know what the methane emissions are going to be.”
“Either the companies are going to put it on the table or a regulation is going to come at the European level,” he added. “I leave that open.”
Delbeke was speaking on 3 October at a presentation for a new methane emissions report by Dr David Allen, organised by the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP) in Brussels.
Methane is a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a shorter 100-year period, and 72 times greater over 20 years. Scientists believe that it could be a particularly dangerous trigger for global warming feedback loops.
The issue of how to regulate it will be crucial, as Brussels weighs the wisdom of a legislative package for shale gas, ahead of an announcement planned for this December.
The EU executive could decide on a standalone instrument such as a new directive, amendments to existing legislation, or ‘soft guidance’ to industry in the form of voluntary obligations.
As a taster of what lies ahead, the European parliament will next week vote on forcing shale gas firms to undertake Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) before drills can begin.
Environmental Impact Assessment vote
Debate has split along unconventional lines, with Conservative and Liberal MEPs whose constituencies cover potential shale gas sites taking uncharacteristically environmentally-friendly positions. At this stage, it is unclear whether impact assessments would include testing for methane leaks.
But the issue is unlikely to be ignored in the long-term. “We are learning that there are severe problems with the development of methane,” Delbeke said.
Even so, amendments to the EIA bill could exempt shale gas drill zones that retrieve less than 500,000 cubic metres per day from assessments. That figure compares to existing laws for conventional fuels, but could open the door to unregulated hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking'.
In the US, the maximum foreseeable production rate of drills in the Marcellus shale formation in the Appalachian basin is 250,000 cubic metres, and figures for the Haynesville shale basin, and Barnett shale basin are less than that.
According to David Hughes, a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute in the US, any drill retrieving 500,000 cubic metres “would be an extremely rare well”.
The first Polish shale gas well in Lebien has a daily production rate of just 8,000 cubic metres per day, a sum that Lane Energy - the ConocoPhillips subsidiary running it - described as “an amount unseen in Europe to date”.
Some scientists question whether such drill sites will ever face meaningful regulation.
Battle of the studies
“Industry will have to provide information in Europe, perhaps” said Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University in emailed comments, “but how will anyone know if the information is accurate?”
“Industry certainly has a very strong interest in trying to project that methane emissions are low,” he added.
A 2011 Cornell University study that Howarth co-authored found that methane emissions from shale gas drills could have a carbon footprint between 20% and 100% greater than coal. The methane readings in the study were obtained from overhead airplane samples.
But a research team led by Dr Allen at the University of Texas, which was given unprecedented access to shale gas sites at ground level, has found emissions from well ‘completions’ lower than previously thought, even if leaks from pneumatic controllers and equipment were higher.
Measurements were taken at 190 production sites owned by nine US companies – such as Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell – that collectively own nearly 12% of the country’s shale wells. Total methane emissions were 0.42% of gross gas production, Allen found, compared to the 0.47% logged in the 2011 US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inventory.
Several other studies had estimated higher methane findings but Allen told EurActiv that his team had been granted unique access to shale sites, allowing them to exclude methane emissions from other sources, such as oil wells, which could distort results.
“Typically when one flies over a geological region, like Utah, you are measuring not only gas production but also gathering, clean up operations, initial transmission and compression, a variety of parts of the supply chain that will lead to differences,” he said.
Critics say that Allen’s team was industry-funded and had to inform shale gas companies of the dates and sites they wanted to visit, up to a week in advance. Nine of the 12 members of the report’s steering committee come from the oil and gas industry, they say.
Allen accepts that his team did not measure methane emissions from midstream and downstream shale production – in processing units, pipelines, storage and distribution systems – but new papers measuring these will be released in the months ahead.
Drew Nelson from the Environmental Defense Fund, a green group which is supporting all these studies, said that Allen’s research paper suggested “a net benefit for the climate by switching from coal to shale gas”.
“The study shows that regulation in the US works,” he said. “Green completion is highly effective and there are opportunities to reduce leaks even more.”
The EPA has determined that all shale gas firms must, by 2015, use ‘green completion’ techniques that capture methane so that it can be sold.
“That's the best environmentally, although some methane is still probably released during the operation,” Howarth said. “But it has not been commonly done in the US. It takes time, and companies would rather push ahead as fast as they can and move on to develop and frack another well.”
Howarth professed himself “very worried” that exemptions already granted to industry would be incrementally added to, “and I worry about how the regulations will be enforced.”
“[The] EPA does not intend to send inspectors out to observe what is going on but instead will rely on industry reporting of what they are doing. Venting is invisible to the naked eye. Unwatched rigs seem likely to cheat at least some times, given the history of the US oil and gas industry in complying with regulations in the past,” he said.
Venting methane into the sky is the most environmentally-damaging disposal method. Instead, flaring is often used to try to prevent gas from reaching the atmosphere, and this was observed in Allen’s paper.
But public hostility could obstruct its use in a more densely-populated Europe, given the jet-like noise and flames – sometimes towering hundreds of feet in the air – that flaring can create.
“I can’t see a company winning their public fight [to drill] if there is going to be a huge flame day or night which is a symbol of spoiling resources,” Delbeke said.
Roland Festor, OGP’s EU affairs director said that the industry was doing all it could to stop the practice of flaring. “Unfortunately, sometimes there are no (alternative) solutions except stopping to produce oil and gas,” he said.