Natural gas well being drilled in Pennsylvania

Natural gas well being drilled in Pennsylvania (August 7, 2012)

An industry group is accusing the Chesapeake Bay Foundation of misrepresenting the facts in a video investigation the environmental group released last fall purporting to show natural gas wells and processing facilities spewing invisible plumes of pollution into the air.

Energy in Depth, an arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, says the plumes captured on CBF's video using an infrared camera are not surreptitious releases of methane and other hydrocarbons, as the environmental group alleged, but hot exhaust from generators.

The group, which was formed to defend the shale gas industry against criticism of the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," produced its own video, in which it said leaks of methane and other hydrocarbons look very different to an infrared camera than the plumes shown in the foundation's video.

The industry rebuttal comes nearly eight months after the bay foundation released its video, in which it said it had detected hydrocarbon emissions coming from 11 of 15 gas drilling and processing sites in Pennsylvania, western Maryland and West Virginia.  (The western Maryland site is an underground gas storage facility in Accident in Garrett County)

The plumes, which are invisible to the naked eye, turn up as brightly colored clouds streaming into the sky in the CBF video. The facilities were filmed for the foundation by Sawyer Infrared Inspection Services of Boston.

The hydrocarbons being released likely included methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and perhaps benzene, a carcinogen, toluene or propane, according to the foundation, which forwarded its video to the Environmental Protection Agency along with a petition for tougher air pollution standards for wells and related gas processling facilities.

Others have raised similar concerns about methane leaks and other air pollution from gas wells and related facilities.

But Energy in Depth spokesman Chris Tucker contends the CBF video is a misleading attempt to dramatize the issue, wrongly portraying the billowing plumes picked up by the infrared camera as huge releases of hydrocarbons.

The dispute is part of a continuing national furor over the environmental impacts of "fracking," the widely used gas drilling technique in which large volumes of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the well to break up rock layers and free the gas for extraction from the ground. Residents living near wells have complained of drinking water wells being contaminated and of noxious fumes making them sick.  The industry has disputed each complaint, arguing that methane detected in wells occurred naturally, and that drilling has no signficiant impact on local air quality.

Pennsylvania has encouraged drilling for gas in the Marcellus shale deposits underlying much of the mid-Atlantic region.  Maryland, on the other hand, has imposed a de facto moratorium on "fracking" for the gas believed to be abundant in Garrett and Allegany counties until the state completes a multi-year study of the impacts.

“It might have taken a couple months to compile this response, but it only took a couple seconds to figure out that what CBF was showing in that video had nothing to do with methane,” Lee Fuller, Energy in Depth's’s executive director, said in a press release.

The industry group commissioned its own expert in air monitoring technology to critique the foundation's video. Ram A. Hashmonay, with Environ, an international consulting firm, said in an interview that the plumes shown don't look the way methane would if it was leaking into the air.  The infrared images are of hot exhaust instead, he said.

Asked if some methane or other hydrocarbons might not be leaking into the air with the exhaust if the generators weren't burning fuel very efficiently, Hashmonay said it was possible, but that the FLIR cameras aren't really capable of spotting such emissions.

"I’m not saying hydrocarbons are zero (in the plumes)," Hashmonay said, "but the levels are much lower than the detection of that camera."

The bay foundation released a statement standing by the conclusions of the experts it interviewed in the video, including the FLIR camera operator David Sawyer and Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor of ecology. Howarth has been a controversial figure because of his criticism of "fracking." A paper he published contending the greenhouse gas emissions from the gas drilling boom exceed that of burning coal has been disputed by others, including researchers at the University of Maryland.

Foundation spokesman John Surrick didn't respond in detail to the industry group's criticism of the video, but rejected what he called the industry's "implied conclusion" that there is no significant air pollution from hydraulic fracturing, gas processing or storage.

“Numerous studies from other areas of the country experiencing large-scale natural gas extraction have routinely concluded that the air quality around natural gas sites contains quantifiable levels of contaminants attributed to the industry," CBF said in its statement.  It noted that a short-term study in Pennsylvania found methane, ethane, propane, and butane in the air near natural gas sites, and that a longer-term study is under way to assess longer-term exposures.