Varun Sivaram

Energy, Security, and Climate

CFR experts examine the science and foreign policy surrounding climate change, energy, and nuclear security.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


One More Round in the Methane Debate

by Michael Levi
March 6, 2013


I have a new note in the Journal of Geophysical Research (JGR) that I hope will be the last word in an increasingly tedious battle over an isolated but highly publicized methane leakage study that was published last year. I’ll explain what the note says in a moment, but first some background is in order.

Last fall, JGR published my critique of a highly publicized study (also published in JGR) from a team at NOAA. The study had claimed massive leakage rates for methane from natural gas production. Methane is a potent warming gas; the results, if correct, were a bombshell. My critique was simple: the original study had made unsupportable assumptions; if you removed those and instead used more of the data that the NOAA team had collected, you found implied methane leakage rates far lower than what the NOAA team had estimated.

No response from the original authors was published alongside my critique. This is unusual – it happened because the original authors did not submit a publishable response after being given half a year to do so. (My accepted paper was held from publication while JGR waited, which is normal, even if the waiting period was on the long side.) A couple months after my critique appeared, JGR published a NOAA-team response. The response claimed to a find fatal flaw in my paper and doubled down on their original claim that their data revealed methane leakage well above accepted estimates. Because the NOAA response had been accepted so late, I wasn’t given an opportunity to defend my paper at the time. Soon after, a similar team of researchers announced preliminary (pre-review) results from another study, claiming even more massive methane leakage in Utah. These once again attracted considerable attention.

When I read the NOAA response in November, I was stunned. The supposed fatal flaw in my paper didn’t exist; the NOAA authors had conflated a math trick with a physical phenomenon and drawn conclusions from that. The NOAA authors did, however, argue that a data set that they had relied on in their paper, and that I had retained in mine (though with expressed concern), was shaky. They then used that to assert that my results weren’t to be trusted. What they didn’t mention was that if their data set was unreliable, then their own results had no foundation either.

I quickly submitted a new note to JGR that made these points. It spent a couple months bouncing around in peer review because – and I find this kind of amazing – someone had found an additional flaw in the NOAA paper that I had not critiqued, and insisted that I needed to tackle it. My reply, including the additional requested critique (I swear I wasn’t trying to pick another fight), was finally accepted a few weeks ago.

The paper in press is here for JGR subscribers; you can download a preprint here. In it, I defend my paper from one NOAA-team criticism, but accept that their critique of the data set (“flashing profiles”) that they introduced and relied on may be correct. I then explained the consequences of that for both their analysis and mine. Here’s my bottom line from the newest paper:

“One can only conclude that either the flashing profiles are reasonably representative – in which case Petron et al [2012a] have presented no reason to question the results in Levi [2012] – or the flashing profiles are unrepresentative, in which case neither Petron et al. [2012] nor Levi [2012] have any basis to report reliable estimates of fugitive methane emissions. In either case, the results reported in Petron et al. [2012] are without foundation. Since the flashing profiles of condensate tanks in the area under study have likely changed since Petron et al. [2012] collected their data in 2008 (Petron et al [2012a]), this part of the debate is unlikely to be resolved definitively. Debate and observations should focus on rigorously understanding what is happening today through multiple observational and analytical methods. Several data collection efforts that could enable this are currently underway [EPA, 2012].”

I hope that we can do just that: focus on serious measurements that are underway while putting this flawed study behind us.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Jack Riggs

    Your note seems persuasive to this non-expert. But the author of one of the leaked emails in the so-called climategate scandal might have advised you not to use the phrase “math trick” in a post for a general audience.

  • Posted by Ken Glick (EEI)

    So exactly how much methane escapes during the drilling process? I’ve heard estimates as high as 10% but that amount of waste would make natural gas so expensive that would be competitive with other fossil fuels.

  • Posted by likeafuture

    Germany had a day this month where 70% of their power came from the wind. Can we stop the nonsense of pretending that you can stick the earth’s crust full of holes via the aquifers that cannot be repaired? With chemicals that would give your kid asthma and cancer and make you have to move somewhere else?
    Take a look out of the airplane at those nice little driveways all over the place that look like Ebola virus on the face of the planet. Those are all wells, not building sites. There won’t be anywhere left to move to..
    And all this because Dick Cheney holed up with some oil barons in early 2001 and dictatorially lifted the EPA rules on environmental review for small footprint wells. The footprints are all over the place now, and you can’t eat the fish from your camping trips anymore. You’re not eating it, are you? Look up your local guidelines, be careful, I’m not kidding!

    All that , plus two awful wars and geopolitical upheaval, while droughts increase, vets are not treated, and kids go hungry. It’s hard to farm on fracked land afterwards. And 50% of the wells leak within 30 years. That is a fact, uncontested.. There won’t be anything left and your gated communities will be no protection when there is famine in places you thought it couldn’t happen. 7 billion people. millions of wells. methane atmosphere. mass extinction.

    Is this really how we want to go?

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required