NC WARN, a Durham environmental advocacy group, and a Fayetteville engineer have teamed up to lodge federal allegations of scientific fraud against a Texas engineering professor who led key studies into methane leakage at shale gas drilling sites around the country.
NC WARN filed the charges with the Environmental Protection Agency, asking the agency’s Office of Inspector General to investigate what the Durham group describes as misleading science that gives the fossil fuel industry political cover to continue spewing methane into the atmosphere.
NC WARN is pressing the EPA to start regulating methane emissions at the thousands of natural gas drilling and production sites around the country. In its EPA complaint, the organization is demanding a zero-emission standard on valves and pipes that are releasing the methane, a greenhouse gas that has 84 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide.
Touché Howard, the Fayetteville engineer who also works as a firefighter in Durham, is involved because he’s a retired chemical engineer who had worked for decades as monitoring natural gas leaks for the oil and gas industry. Howard, 54, invented the HiFlow technology in 1993 that was used in two studies that NC WARN wants the EPA’s inspector general to investigate.
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“We used the terms scientific fraud and coverup because we believe there’s possible criminal violations involved,” said NC WARN executive director Jim Warren. “The consequence is that for the past 3 years the industry has been arguing, based largely on the 2013 study, that emissions are low enough that we shouldn’t regulate them.”
In filing the charges, NC WARN, a 12-employee activist organization with a $1.2 million annual budget, is taking on Big Energy and the Environmental Defense Fund, a highly respected national environmental organization that commissioned and funded the methane leak studies.
The methane studies were conducted by David Allen, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Texas in Austin. His conclusions, embraced by the drilling industry, said that methane leaks at well sites are lower than EPA had previously estimated. However, because Allen was head of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board at the time of his methane studies, NC WARN is alleging the Texas professor committed misconduct not as a private citizen but as an EPA official.
Allen, the University of Texas and EDF have rejected NC WARN’s charges. Allen issued a statement saying he and his research team used multiple instruments to measure methane leakage and double-checked their data.
“This claimed equipment failure is restricted to one of multiple types of instruments that were used,” Allen said. “None of these parallel systems indicated a problem with our HiFlow® instrument.
“All of these systems would have had to fail, simultaneously, and only at certain types of sites with the conditions that are claimed to produce the equipment failure, for our measurements to have been impacted.”
The EPA’s Inspector General is an independent investigator of fraud, waste and abuse that has previously chided the EPA for its lax handling of methane emissions.
The level of methane leaks at shale gas drilling and production facilities remains a matter of heated speculation. Critics consider shale gas, which is touted as a clean alternative to burning coal, to be more dangerous than coal when it comes to global warming because of the scale of pipeline emissions tolerated by the industry and EPA.
Accuracy of equipment
The misconduct NC WARN is alleging has to do with the accuracy of the equipment Allen used in the studies. The equipment was the Bacharach HiFlow Sampler, based on the technology developed by Howard and used in his consulting business before it was later commercialized for the industry. Howard says the commercial versions of the device can malfunction and under-report the presence of natural gas in airflow samples taken from natural gas pipes.
Allen and Howard have clashed over the alleged inaccuracies of Allen’s samples on the pages of engineering journals. Howard has published papers challenging Allen’s research and says that Allen disregarded his critiques and refuses to retract his research.
Howard said the implications of a potential error are very serious: High concentrations of methane could cause fatal explosions at work sites and could expose field workers to toxic chemicals in the air, in addition to contributing to climate change. Based on downstream air samples at some sites, Howard said methane leakage could be three to five times higher than Allen reported.
“It could be dereliction of duty, it could be reckless endangerment,” Howard said of Allen’s research. “There’s a lot of disturbing possibilities here.”
EDF, in a blog post, acknowledged ongoing concerns about methane emissions, but noted that EPA recently finalized limits on gas leaks from new and rebuilt natural gas facilities (the EPA exempts existing oil and gas infrastructure).
“Other studies using entirely different methods and measurement technologies broadly support Allen’s findings,” EDF blogged.
“The Bacharach HiFlow sampler was the sole source measurement used for just two of the five emissions sources tallied by UT,” EDF spokesman Jon Coifman said by email. “In turn, the UT research at issue involves just two of the 16 studies organized by EDF, and just 3 of the 27 peer-reviewed papers published on those studies so far (there are nine more papers that we are aware of still in the works).”
Allen’s measurements were among the most comprehensive to date, taken at hundreds of well sites in four regions: Appalachia, Gulf Coast, Midwest and the Rocky Mountain region.