Deadly Influence: Powerful Oil Companies Force EPA to Undercount Methane Emissions

New study shows EPA has missed as much as 50 percent because it must get permission from the very companies that pollute.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Calin Tatu

A new study published in Science magazine reveals that the Environmental Protection Agency has been drastically undercounting the amount of global temperature-boosting methane gas in the air by as much as 50%--the amount equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of 252 coal power plants over a 20-year time period. 

The new study uses top-down and bottom-up methods to measure the amount of methane emissions in the air, meaning they not only measure the exact amount of methane in the air (top-down), they can accurately trace the sources of the gas from the ground (bottom-up).

But the EPA normally uses a bottom-up approach in its estimates of methane in the air. A major limitation of their methodology is that researchers must obtain permission to survey natural-gas operations, which is oftentimes denied by companies in the fossil fuel industry. Those that do offer permission are likely the companies that emit the least gas, and when the EPA uses their emissions data to extrapolate for the whole industry, they likely understate the actual degree of methane in the air.

Fortunately, new technologies under development allow researchers to measure the amount of methane and other gases in the air from a distance, nullifying the requirement of permission to enter private facilities. These include stationary detectors as well as car-mounted devices that can sample the air and locate gas leaks from a considerable distance.

Nevertheless, the pace of innovation for regulators still lags far behind the evolving technologies that have facilitated the fracking boom within the oil and gas industry. As companies break ground and zip petrol across the country at a dizzying pace, the need for a more robust toolkit is becoming more apparent, as the vexing revelation about lowballed methane estimates reveals. 

Aaron Cantú is an investigator for the Marijuana Arrest Research Project and an independent journalist based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmiguel_
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