Shale Gas Drilling

Workers change the equipment on the drilling platform March 12, 2020, at a Seneca Resources shale gas well drilling site in St. Mary's, Pa.

(The Center Square) – An updated study released this week found that Pennsylvania oil and gas site operators underreport methane emissions to regulatory agencies, skewing the impact on public health and the environment.

But some critics have questioned the science underpinning the study, arguing that the oil and gas industry has strong incentives not to allow the kind of waste it alleges. 

The Environmental Defense Fund said its latest data suggests these sites emit upwards of 1.1 million short tons of methane annually – more than 16 times the amount reported to the state Department of Environmental Protection. 

“The fact that natural gas operators are emitting well over a million tons of methane pollution each year into the air Pennsylvanians breathe is unacceptable,” said Dan Grossman, senior director of state advocacy at EDF. “The staggering scale of the methane problem in Pennsylvania makes Gov. Wolf’s proposal to reduce emissions from existing oil and gas operations all the more critical.”

According to EDF’s analysis, unconventional well operators reported 70,150 short tons of methane emissions in 2017, when in reality the estimates came in seven times higher at 543,000 short tons. Levels from conventional wells were estimated to total in excess of 599,200 short tons. The vast majority of actively producing oil and gas wells across the state – roughly 90 percent – are classified as conventional and therefore don’t send annual emissions data to the DEP.

Hillary Hull, senior manager of research and analytics at EDF, said its Pennsylvania Methane Data Project is based on 2017 production and emissions modeling from a study published in Science the following year. Researchers also used state-specific production projections – which began increasing in 2017 and continue through current year – from Rystad Energy and data on well counts from both the DEP and federal databases that monitor multiple basins across the country, including in the Marcellus Shale region.

Some critics have said, however, the analysis is based on flawed data long debunked by federal research agencies, including a study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released last year that found methane emissions have remained flat since 2006 despite a 46 percent increase in natural gas production. 

NOAA lead author Xin Lan said the study, based on measurements of methane emissions from 20 long term sampling sites collected over a decade, found no statistically significant increase in total methane across the U.S. The NOAA study also concluded that prior analyses of rising methane levels were based on faulty measurements that led to “major overestimations.”

Energy in Depth, the research arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, considers EDF’s conclusions to be among the most overstated. David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, agrees that EDF’s report contradicts other research on the issue. 

“Credible federal, state and independent third party organization data shows overall emissions, including methane, continue to dramatically drop as natural gas production soars,” he said. “Since methane is the very product produced and sold, operators have every incentive, especially in this historic low price environment, to capture and market natural gas.”

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.