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Key government reports were wrong about methane leaks' severity, environmental group alleges

Key government reports were wrong about methane leaks' severity, environmental group alleges
Workers adjust piping at an Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. drilling site in western Colorado. (Associated Press)

An environmental organization filed a federal complaint Wednesday, alleging that key reports by a top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official wrongfully stated the severity of methane leaks across the nation's natural gas industry.

In its 68-page complaint to the EPA's Office of Inspector General, NC Warn, a 28-year-old climate and energy justice organization based in North Carolina, alleges that David Allen, a university faculty member who was head of the EPA's Science Advisory Board at the time of the reports, should have corrected studies about methane leaks after the equipment used for the reports was proved faulty. Allen is on the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin, according to the complaint.

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NC Warn's conclusion is largely based on efforts by whistle-blower Touché Howard, an engineer who invented the technology used to measure methane leaks. Howard identified a flaw in the technology that showed Allen's studies could be underreporting emissions as much as 100-fold.

"In the extreme, that kind of failure could lead to catastrophic explosions," Howard said in an interview.

The studies were published in 2013 and 2014 by the Environmental Defense Fund at a time of growing concern about the impact of methane emissions on climate and as the fracking boom led to the drilling of thousands of natural gas wells across the country. The studies' findings have been used by the natural gas industry to argue that methane leaks are low.

The EPA describes methane as the second-most-prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activities but its impact on climate change is more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

Allen, through a spokesman at the University of Texas, responded to the allegations in a statement that defended the studies. The statement noted that Allen and his team used various instruments for the studies and believe that the findings are sound.

"Our study team strongly asserts that the instrument we used and the measurements we made were not impacted by the claimed failure," the statement said.

California became particularly sensitive to concerns about natural gas leaks after the 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed a quiet Northern California neighborhood.

In addition, a leak at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility, which began in October and lasted for four months, forced thousands of people from their homes in the nearby Porter Ranch community.

Although the studies focused on methane leaks at drilling locations, Howard, now retired, said he believes that flawed reporting could have implications for Aliso Canyon and other natural gas facilities throughout the country.

The equipment in question has been used at all stages of natural gas processing, transmission, storage and distribution to determine methane emissions, according to NC Warn.

Because of conflicting data on methane leak rates, NC Warn stated, the Environmental Defense Fund launched a series of 16 studies in 2012 costing $18 million to look at emissions from natural gas production.

Howard says Allen had told him that his concerns would be addressed. But Howard says that never happened.

In its complaint, NC Warn has called for an investigation by the EPA's Office of Inspector General.

"Methane emissions have become the leading method of climate change," said Jim Warren, executive director of NC Warn. "This is enormous for the people of California."

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