Is Regulatory Science an Oxymoron?—The Case of Shale Gas


Sez who?

Earlier this year just as anti-fracking hysteria was peaking among environmental lobbyists and the media, Cornell University ecologist and passionate anti-fracking activist [YouTube] Robert Howarth and colleagues managed to get published an article [PDF] in the journal Climatic Change that claimed: 

Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.

That's right—producing and burning shale gas is supposedly worse than producing and burning coal in terms of the production of the greenhouse gases that are thought to be heating the atmosphere.

Howarth's study was at variance with many earlier studies. For example, the 2007 life cycle analysis study [PDF] published before shale gas became politicized in the journal Environmental Science and Technology by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University which found:

… combustion emissions from coal-fired power plants are higher than those from natural gas: the midpoint between the lower and upper bound emission factors for coal combustion is approximately 2100 lb CO2 equiv/MWh, while the midpoint for natural gas combustions is approximately 1100 lb CO2 equiv/MWh. 

Translation: Greenhouse gas emissions from using natural gas are about half those of using coal.

In May, another life cycle analysis of natural gas production and burning versus coal by the National Energy Technology Laboratory [PDF] concluded: 

Average Natural Gas Baseload Power Generation has a Life Cycle GWP 54% Lower than Average Coal Baseload Power Generation on a 100-year Time Horizon [and] Average Natural Gas Baseload Power Generation has a Life Cycle GWP 48% Lower than Average Coal Baseload Power Generation on a 20-year Time Horizon. 

Now, the energy consultancy IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates has produced a report, Mismeasuring Methane, [PDF] that looks directly at the claim that constructing shale gas wells emits large amounts of natural gas (methane). This is of concern since methane molecules have a much higher global warming potential than do carbon dioxide molecules. 

The IHS CERA report looks first at Environmental Protection Agency estimates of uncontrolled emissions from drilling new wells. The IHS CERA analysts point out that assuming that every new well vented all of the equivalent of its eventual daily production of methane during a ten-day flowback period that would amount to the CO2 equivalant of 43 million metric tons of methane. Even this extreme assumption is…

…far lower than EPA's estimated level of 130 million tons of methane emissions from natural gas field production in 2009.

The EPA esimate is three times higher than assuming that all new wells freely vented methane for their first ten days after they began producing natural gas. The IHS CERA analysis looks at other flawed EPA emissions assumptions and concludes they result in a "gross overestimate" of actual emissions. 

The IHS CERA report then takes on the Howarth study which…

…follows and extends the analysis of the EPA study. It considers methane emissions during flowback from five unconventional gas basins.

Among the unrealistic assumptions in the Howarth paper is that shale gas wells emit more natural gas during the flowback period when gas begins to flow initially than they do once they've actually begun production. The IHS CERA report asserts:

"This is a fundamental error, since the gas stream builds up slowly during flowback."

A second unrealistic assumption by Howarth et al. is that drillers simply vent all the natural gas produced initially. Again the IHS CERA report notes:

Compounding this error is the assumption that all flowback methane is vented, when industry practice is to capture and market as much as possible, flaring much of the rest. Vented emissions of the magnitudes estimated by Howarth would be extremely dangerous and subject to ignition. The simple fact that fires are rare in all gas-producing areas suggests that this analysis grossly overestimates the quantities of methane that are leaking uncontrolled into the atmosphere at the well site.

The report concludes: 

The environmental impacts of unconventional gas production have become a controversial public issue. Given the rapid growth of unconventional production, rigorous analysis of these effects is important. Such an analysis must be based on facts and clear understanding of industry practices. Recent estimates of the GHG emissions from drilling and completion of unconventional gas wells do not meet this standard. EPA would do better to rely on a new, more appropriate data-driven methodology in addressing GHG emissions.

A final couple of questions: Why is it that environmentalists and environmental agency bureaucrats can always gin up studies that show that any activity they oppose and/or want to regulate is dangerous to the environment? On the other hand, why is it that energy producers and energy agency bureaucrats can gin up studies that suggest that the benefits of any activity they favor outweigh the costs? 

Tentative answer: Regulatory science is an oxymoron. 

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  1. Nope, not tentative at all. That about sums it up.

  2. The science is settled! Consensus! What possible motivation could all these scientists have to fudge data!?

    1. scientists ALWAYS fudge data to get govt & corp grants, impress fellow-commie professors, & re-write mankinds’ 6000 yr history

  3. on the 20-year horizon

    Ho, ho!

  4. So Ron you are willing to admit confirmation and ideological bias actually can go two ways? That gee maybe scientists who have an ideological agenda might let that taint their work?

    Wow. If they will do it for fracking, why wouldn’t they do the same for AGW? You might want to consider that the next time you are telling us all how wonderful and convincing the science supporting AGW is.

    1. Seriously Ron, isn’t climate science, at least in the last 20 years, nothing but a giant field of regulatory science?

      1. Minus the fact that AGW itself has absolutely nothing to do with regulation and everything to do with the science of the atmosphere?

        1. “Minus the fact that AGW itself has absolutely nothing to do with regulation”

          Bullshit. It has everything to do with regulation. Once its existence became a justification for political policy, it became “regulatory science”.

          1. I don’t know. There must be one or two climate scientists who do it purely for the pursuit of knowledge.

            1. Probably. But I bet they are not getting much funding or press.

    2. I don’t know what to tell you. If you think you know better than thousands of qualified climate scuentists, there’s just no hope for you, John.

      1. For the record, while MNG and I don’t really agree about much, and I detest that he comes here to argue for “points” rather than to debate points (see his open taunts at John) I am not MiNGe.

    3. John: I am all about confirmation bias. See my articles, Climate Change and Confirmation Bias, and Everyone Who Knows What They’re Talking About Agrees with Me.

      See also my column, Confessions of an Alleged Exxon Mobil Whore”. In that column I confess my confirmation bias with regard to AGW:

      And then there is also the matter of my intellectual commitments. We all have them. Since I work for a self-described libertarian magazine that should indicate to even the dimmest reader that I tend to have a healthy skepticism of government “solutions” to problems, including government solutions to environmental problems. I have long argued that the evidence shows that most environmental problems occur in open access commons-that is, people pollute air, rivers, overfish, cut rainforests, and so forth because no one owns them and therefore no one has an interest in protecting them. One can solve environmental problems caused by open access situations by either privatizing the commons or regulating it. It will not surprise anyone that I generally favor privatization. That’s because I believe that the overwhelming balance of the evidence shows that centralized top-down regulation tends to be costly, slow, often ineffective, and highly politicized. As a skeptic of government action, I had hoped that the scientific evidence would lead to the conclusion that global warming would not be much of a problem, so that humanity could avoid the messy and highly politicized process of deciding what to do about it. Unhappily, I now believe that balance of evidence shows that global warming could well be a significant problem. Since it doesn’t seem pertinent to the purpose of this column, I will leave the policy discussion of how to handle man-made climate change to another time.

      1. “Unhappily, I now believe that balance of evidence shows that global warming could well be a significant problem.”

        The problem is Ron that once the existence and significance of AGW became associated with and a justification for top down planning and all sorts of other ideological goals, scientists’ judgement concerning whether and to what extent it was a problem could no longer be trusted.

        You can’t put the political genie back in the bottle.

        1. That criticism works just as well on AGW deniers as it does for AGW supporters. Your special pleading doesn’t work. So then, it’s back to the data: warmer lands, warmer oceans, less ice, warmer lower atmosphere, cooler upper atmosphere, and all this during lower solar output.

          You may not trust the motives of the scientists, but the data are devastating.

          1. There data is anything but devastating. And they haven’t made an accurate, verifiable prediction ever.

            And sure, I will freely admit the skeptics are suitable to the same bias. But once you admit that, you have to admit we don’t know. And that means we shouldn’t do a damn thing in response.

            1. its too late once u see us

              1. Bwa. Ha. Ha.

              2. Massive costal Flooding:

                Hey check this out:


                I will let you guess how much sea level has risen since the 1600s.

                also there is this:


            2. The accurate, verifiable predictions are exactly what we’re seeing: more extreme weather events, and a pattern of warming and cooling that fit with the model of human-created GHG warming.

              As for bias, there can be bias on both sides. The question is: what is the correct way to interpret the data? AGW explains the data, and AGW deniers cannot.

              1. AGW deniers cannot.

                Oh really?


                By the way it was so vary nice of you to compare us to Holocaust deniers.

                How judicious fair and a-political of you to do so.

                1. Honestly, I am not seeing what data AGW explains:

                  The best models don’t properly predict temperature as a function of altitude.

                  Nobody seems to know whether increased evaporation leads to cooler or warmer temperatures.

                  Much of the statistical analysis is poorly done – with the tragicomic outcome that when McIntyre tried to publish papers explaining some of the poor analysis, climate journals rejected it as being unproven mathematics appropriate for a mathematical journal, and satistics journals rejected them as breaking no new mathematical ground.

                  Having done some computer modeling of the earth’s atmosphere as an undergrad in the early 90’s, I’m seeing a large number of signs coming out of AGW of people shooting from the hip mathematically and computationally.

                  The interesting question will be the followup research on the impact of cosmic rays on cloud generation, and hence the effect of the sun’s magnetic field on the Earth’s climate. The latest stuff out of CERN is very interesting on that front.

                  In the end, the notion that CO2 acts as a thermostat that triggers a short term positive feedback that increases temperature by releasing other greenhouse gases etc is not very plausible. The experimental data is not conclusive. The computer models are flawed. The econometric models are definitely flawed.

                  Fortunately, time will tell us how the atmosphere works. And I am pretty confident that humans will adapt just fine as they have since the stone age.

          2. it’s not the data, it’s the interpretation of AGW proponents – it’s all man’s fault; therefore, a massive govt solution is in order. THAT is where scientist’s motives come into question. When someone’s study of a topic is funded by govt, it is just as reasonable to question it as when industry funds research.

        2. Unhappily, I now believe that balance of evidence* shows that global warming could well be a significant problem.

          *Even though the politicization of global warming means that it is vulnerable, at a minimum, to being the sort of “regulatory science” that miraculously always supports the political agenda of its funders.

        3. “Unhappily, I now believe that balance of evidence shows that global warming could well be a significant problem.”


          most ambiguous statement ever.

          What about AGW?

          Even John can look at any of the numerous graphs available and see that the earth is slightly warmer then it was 30 years ago.

          The question is what is causing it.

          Furthermore this statement that it will be a problem seems to contradict at least in spirit what you have been saying….that ‘yeah the earth is warming up but more likely then not we will adopt to it without much fuss.’

          And lastly the recent warming is caused by the sun:


  5. Once you understand that most environmentalists are Luddites and conservationists, their positions make much more sense…

    1. Once you understand that most environmentalists are Luddites and nothing else, their positions make sense. If technology helps with conservation, most environmentalists are going to object.

      1. I think you’re right about the most vocal environmentalists…but I’d add that some of them are also simply anti-consumption. I had a class in college to satisfy some liberal arts requirement thing in which the professor posed the question, “But are we just developing biofuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enable our continued high consumption?” Um… isn’t that the point of alternative energy? At that moment I did realize many are not simply luddite but part of this sort of religious anti-consumption movement. However, I think the average person concerned with the environment is actually concerned with just that, and will happily accept technological solutions that both make the environment cleaner and our lives better.

        1. I agree. But I would consider anti-consumerism a form of Luddite. But that is just me. Sadly, many environmentalists use environmentalism as a Trojan horse for any number of other loathsome ideologies.

          1. I like the term “watermelons”. Green on the outside, red on the inside.

            I’d probably call myself an environmentalist if most weren’t little dipshit naive communists.

            1. Yeah, they have pretty much destroyed the brand. I would consider myself one too. But not in the way it is currently defined. You can’t be a outright communist anymore and be taken seriously by the general public. But you can hold the same views repackaged as environmentalism and get lots of people to take you seriously. That is what a lot of socialists did after the cold war ended.

        2. Did you point out that his very existence as a college professor in some useless field is completely unnecessary consumption of resources?

          1. Oh, snap! You should have seen the butt-hurted-ness when I raged on the (illegally) striking Central Mich Univ teachers. (since ordered back to work)

            I was called everything but a White Indian, and the howls through the interwebs were palpable. It was delicious and made my heart feel all warm and fuzzy.

            And it all started when I said, “You want to be treated like ‘professionals’, college teachers? Then fucking ACT like professionals.” And that starts with NOT being in a Union and striking illegally. Don’t want to do that? Then, fuck you, I’ll never consider you professional. That makes your butt hurt? Fuck you – glad you care so much about what I think that I can ruin your day, you useless, statist execrable users of my tax dollars.

            That is all.

    2. I disagree in part. I have been a hard core conservationist since I was a Boy Scout in the 60’s. I find the modern environmental movement appalling.

  6. I’m starting to get upset about all of the money being spent to study emissions of “greenhouse gases” that haven’t been proven to have any effect on Earth’s climate yet.

    1. I fart in your general direction…

      /greenhouse gas? emission

  7. just as anti-fracking hysteria was peaking

    I don’t think we’ll ever reach Peak Hysteria where “environmentalism” is concerned.


      Actually it has peaked.

      What we are hearing now is its death keels before it permanently marginalized.

  8. My fingers are crossed that Hurricane Irene will finish off the Washington Monument.

    1. Why? It’s a very nice obelisk. And Washington was a very cool dude.

        1. That is your best shot at Washington? Do you even know what you referenced?

          1. Lighten up francis.

        2. The Washington administration responded by sending peace commissioners to western Pennsylvania to negotiate with the rebels, while at the same time raising a militia force to suppress the violence. The insurrection collapsed before the arrival of the army; about 20 men were arrested, but all were later acquitted or pardoned.

          you know in most cases of murder a corpse is required. Multiple corpses if the murder was of multiple people.

          Your link provided none.

          1. Geez, I should have used hyperbole tags – I guess I suck at signaling that I’m being silly.

            Snark aside, my antipathy towards George Washington arises out of
            a) his actions in the run up to the French Indian war, which formented war in order to preserve his investments in a land grant in Ohio.

            The French-Indian war, of course, was expensive and prompted the Crown to levy ruinous taxes which led to the economic dislocatins that prompted the colonies to rebel. Among the casualties of the war, the practically anarchic government of Pennsylvania.

            b) His hostility to the farmers here in Massachusetts during Shay’s Rebellion, caused by the ruinous taxes to pay for the war of independence. Shay’s rebellion really worried the Hamilton wing of the founding fathers who weren’t upset at mercantilism per se, but at mercantilism that benefited people other than them.

            c) His support for the imposition of the U.S. Constitution – which was a disaster; now there was a central government with a standing army that could force people to pay whatever taxes it chose to levy

            d) His invasion of Pennsylvania with that standing army.

            Washington, like Jefferson is a study in contradictions. There is much about him that is admirable – freeing his slaves in his will (which if I understand correctly was the earliest time he could free all of them legally).

            But, politically speaking, his support of big government – particularly the one organized along Hamiltonian lines was a terrible betrayal of the de-facto freedoms that existed in the early 1700’s.

            I just can’t find it in my heart to honor a man who helped lay the seeds of many of the problems we have today.

            1. Geez, I should have used hyperbole tags

              no need.

              I am the same guy who wants his memorial to fall down and simultaneously defending his actions during the whiskey rebellion on a libertarian blog.

              It is hyperbole-snark turtles all the way down.

              1. Someone will be by to pick up your decoder ring.

      1. I agree, Washington was pretty damn awesome.

        Still the Washington monument MUST fall!!!

    2. Yeah why? I love the monuments. Now, if Irene would collapse the Capitol, White House and the Supreme Court killing off of the inhabitants?? But leave the monuments alone.

      1. Why do you hate the economy, John? If the monuments are destroyed think of the stimulation it will do to the economy. And if the capitol et al are struck down along with the holy men, who will be here to fix the economy?

  9. I had heard about fracking, good and bad. Then the oil company comes to my house and offers me 12k as a signing bonus and what will turn out to be 5k-15k per month for the next 15-20 years for the oil under my 10acres.

    FRACK ON!!!!!

    1. Gee, I wish I had frack.

    2. I’m sure your neighbors were thrilled.

  10. We need to take a holistic approach to energy production. Burn the whole coal without scrubbing the sulfur from the emissions. Then the cooling effect from the sulfur will more than cancel out any warming effect from the carbon dioxide.

  11. just yesterday Reason had an article claiming the politicization of scientific matters was rare…

  12. No one is venting there flow back once they are in devlopment drilling mode. You turn the wells directly into the line for flowback. The only wells you vent are exploration wells, and there you “flare” the gas, not vent it as methane.

  13. I propose a new campaign:




    or with variation…


    Plaster posts, bumper stickers, internet Flash ads, and television PSAs all over places with high density nanny-stater populations.

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