Regulate Fracking's 'Fugitive Emissions'?
"Fugitive emissions" from hydraulically fractured natural-gas wells leapt into the media spotlight in 2011. With two coauthors, Robert Howarth of Cornell University had published a study claiming that, thanks to these inadvertent releases of pollution, shale-gas wells had a larger greenhouse-gas footprint than coal-fired power plants. As the study noted, natural gas is largely composed of methane -- a potent greenhouse gas with more than 20 times the climate-change potency of carbon dioxide.
Several subsequent academic studies, as well as reports by industry, think-tank, and governmental sources, contradict Howarth's findings, with general agreement that his conclusions were based on unreliable or incorrect data. The consensus is now that the greenhouse-gas footprint of shale gas used for electricity generation is about half that of coal-based power. Further, EPA regulations of hydraulically fractured natural-gas wells enacted in 2012 (after most of the studies were conducted) require the capture or control of at least 95 percent of the fugitive emissions from fracking operations.
As I argue in a new policy paper for the R Street Institute, there does not appear to be any justification for additional regulations. With greenhouse gases shown not to be much of a problem, the primary issue motivating fracking regulation should be concerns regarding public health.
This is because fugitive emissions contain more than just methane. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) are also often released during fracking operations, and they could pose a threat to public health. The population most affected appears to be expectant mothers; studies have established a connection between a mother's exposure to benzene (a HAP) and lower birth weights. Solid causal links between health outcomes and fracking emissions have not been established, but the 2012 EPA regulations likely have reduced the risk of harm.
The public-health issue becomes more pressing when considering how the large geographic area covered by shale resources likely will increase the interaction between human activity and oil and gas extraction. Johnson County, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth, already has seen this. In the year 2000, before the drilling boom in the Barnett Shale, there were only 20 oil and gas wells in the county. Twelve years later, the total had risen to 3,900 wells and nearly every county resident lived within one mile of a gas well. Even this should not pose a public-health risk though, if harmful emissions are controlled or avoided as required by the 2012 EPA regulations.
The EPA is still considering whether imposing regulations on oil wells using hydraulic fracturing is justified. If so, any new regulations must be structured so as not to give an advantage to one company, individual, or enterprise over another. The rules also should be sufficiently flexible that energy companies can meet emission standards in innovative ways that do not stifle the production of new resources. Additionally, all regulations should be reviewed periodically to determine whether their existence is still required and whether they accomplish the goal of preventing harm to human life. Most importantly, any policies governing fugitive emissions from hydraulic fracturing must be founded on a factual understanding of how emissions occur, their specific effects, and the property rights of persons involved.
There is no substitute for good science.
Michael Farren is an associate fellow with the R Street Institute.