Activists Urge EPA To Reject Data Challenge Over Drilling GHG Estimates

Editor’s Note:  The NGO letter is attached at the bottom of the post.

From: Inside EPA

Environmentalists are urging EPA to reject an industry-filed Data Quality Act (DQA) petition challenging the agency’s method for estimating greenhouse gases (GHG), including methane from natural gas drilling — underpinning pending EPA rules for the sector — by warning that EPA could violate the data quality guidelines if it changes the estimates.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently filed the petition charging that EPA’s estimates are flawed and violate DQA guidelines. The group asked EPA to issue corrections to its 2010 technical support document, “Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reporting from the Petroleum and Natural Gas Industry,” which they say overestimates emissions. Higher estimated emissions could lead the agency to craft stricter air pollution rules for the drilling industry.

In a Feb. 17 letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson signed by several environmental groups, including Natural Resources Defense Council, WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club and others, activists counter that the agency’s estimates properly account for huge increases in emissions from the recent natural gas boom.

“Yet the Chamber nonetheless argues that EPA should abandon its efforts to account for this national shift in gas production methods as an ‘error,’” the letter says. “But EPA cannot avoid taking this major change in gas production methods into account, as the Chamber requests, without violating its own [DQA] guidelines — old figures clearly do not constitute accurate and reliable information on which to base updated regulations,” the letter says.

EPA’s own “Guidelines for Ensuring and Maximizing the Quality, Objectivity, Utility and Integrity of Information Disseminated by the Environmental Protection Agency” — which the environmentalists suggest are the relevant “guideposts” under which the agency should consider the Chamber’s request to correct its data — say any information must adhere to objectivity standards and be “accurate, reliable and unbiased,” the groups say.

Activists also reject various arguments raised in the industry letter, criticizing claims that EPA failed to adequately address uncertainty and erred in calculating emissions from some voluntarily installed pollution controls.

EPA faces an April 5 consent decree deadline to issue air rules for the drilling sector, and on March 2 sent the final version of the rule for White House Office of Management and Budget pre-publication review.

Though the Chamber fears that the emission estimates could be used by EPA to justify strict pollution limits in its pending new source performance standards and air toxics rule for the oil and gas sector, environmentalists maintain that even if EPA were to revise its emissions estimates, it should not directly impact the proposed standards.

EPA’s 2010 estimates found that 9,175 thousand cubic feet (MCF) of natural gas emissions from methane, volatile organic compounds and air toxics are released from completion of unconventional gas wells.

The agency’s methodology for cataloging the emissions has drawn fire from industry and GOP lawmakers because it calls into question whether natural gas has an overall lower lifecycle footprint than coal-fired electricity, with two  industry studies refuting EPA’s numbers and pushing a much lower 765 MCF estimate.

The Chamber filed its request for correction on Dec. 19, shortly after House oversight committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) launched an investigation into how the agency arrived at its 2010 estimates.

But the petition, which the Chamber filed under DQA guidelines, likely faces an uphill battle because courts have held that agency decisions under the law are not judicially reviewable.

Accounting For Uncertainty

In the petition, the Chamber is arguing that the agency’s methodology used to account for uncertainty in its estimates is flawed and that the estimates are based on “unverified information from a limited number of wells regarding gas volumes” captured by so-called green completions — emissions control technology used by some companies on a voluntary basis — which the Chamber argues raises questions about the validity of the data.

But the environmentalists in their letter take aim at the Chamber’s characterization, saying that EPA’s estimate comes from gathering independent data from multiple industry and government sources.

“Unconventional well completions are more complex and time-consuming than conventional well-completions, and can emit a great deal more methane,” the letter says. The environmentalists add that because the agency’s earlier estimates from 1996 failed to take the difference into account, those figures became less and less accurate as domestic unconventional natural gas development expanded.

The Chamber in its petition also reiterates criticisms of the method outlined in an August report from the industry consultant IHS CERA, which took aim at what study authors called inappropriate methods for accounting for uncertainty in the estimates.

The report refuted an earlier study by Cornell researcher Robert Howarth, repeatedly shredded by industry, which argued that the life-cycle global warming impacts from shale gas could be ultimately worse than coal.

To refute the Chamber’s objections, the environmental groups point to a recent pilot project conducted by researchers with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association and the University of Colorado that largely backs EPA’s estimates, even suggesting they might be undercutting rather than overestimating methane emissions from natural gas wells. “It thus further shows that the Chamber’s argument that EPA’s figures are too high is wholly unsupported by the evidence,” the letter says.


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