House Republicans target EPA over methane

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on "Face the Nation" Oct. 16, 2011.
CBS/Chris Usher
Rep. Darrell Issa.
CBS/Chris Usher

The House Oversight Committee is launching a new investigation into the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over 2011 methane emissions estimates it suggests were "not based on sound science."

In a Tuesday letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, committee chair Darrell Issa, R-Calif., cites an August 2011 study contending that the EPA's methane emissions estimates were too high, and that the agency's methodology in collecting those figures "lacks rigor" and "should not be used as a basis for analysis and decision making."

According to the letter, the EPA's estimates of methane emissions during natural gas development, which had been revised, "indicate emissions levels between 46.5 and 119.7 percent higher than earlier estimates."

As the EPA provided those estimates to the international community, the letter states, "the Committee is concerned that these methane emissions estimates, now being relied on internationally, were not based on sound science."

The debate is tied to the fight over combating climate change, and specifically the extent to which the increased development of natural gas - which, when used for fuel or electricity emits less carbon dioxide than coal and oil - contributes to global warming.

While some, including the authors of the study to which the Oversight committee refers in its letter, argue that natural gas is "the cleanest-burning fossil fuel," other recent reports suggest that natural gas development is at least as bad for the environment as coal due to the methane emissions.

The study, published by the energy consulting firm IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates (IHS CERA), posits that the EPA's estimates of methane emissions - the amount of methane leaking during the development of gas wells from shale formations - are "dramatically overstated" and that "it would be unwise to use them as a basis for policymaking."

It also argues that the EPA methodology "relies on assumptions that are at odds with industry practice and with health and safety consideration."

"Methane emissions have become a very important and controversial issue given their potency as a greenhouse gas," said Mary Barcella, IHS CERA director of North American natural gas, in a statement released with the report. "Unfortunately, such emissions are not being measured. Estimates are being used that are not supported by data, do not reflect current industry practice and would be unreliable to use as a base for decision-making."

Pointing to the study, the Oversight committee letter argues that the EPA used "questionable math" to reach its estimates, and says that if those figures were accurate, "an extremely hazardous condition would exist at the well site."

"EPA assumes that both the industry and state regulators would allow this situation," the letter says, a position the IHS CERA report says is "not credible."

In a statement to Hotsheet, a spokesperson from the EPA said the Obama administration supports natural gas development and believes it should "play a central role in our energy economy."

"We continue to take steps to make sure that we leverage this abundant domestic resource, safely and responsibly," the EPA said.

The spokesperson said the methane emissions analysis "underwent extensive public review" and that the agency "encouraged companies to provide additional data to help refine these estimates."

"EPA's methane emissions estimates are based on the best available public data from multiple companies and experts, including data from about 8,000 production wells across the United States," the spokesperson said. "These and other data informed the analysis that supports standards that are highly cost effective and would reduce harmful air pollution (VOCs and Hazardous Air Pollution) from the oil and natural gas industry, while allowing continued, responsible growth in U.S. oil and natural gas production."