Clean energy debate ignites drive to research at Wilkes

A debate has ignited over Marcellus Shale drilling and whether the natural gas it produces is as clean as it’s claimed to be. The concerns of air emissions from natural gas production have environmental engineering professors and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection calling for more information on the topic.


The conversation has spread to The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research at Wilkes.


Kenneth Klemow, IEER director and Wilkes biology professor, said more research must be conducted on the extent of emissions. He said the IEER is looking for funding to allow Wilkes researchers to conduct independent measurements and studies to shed some scientific light on the concerns.


“There are different perspectives that you have and that’s fine, but we need more science, we need more research to be able to figure out what’s going on,” Klemow said.

The debate is between coal and natural gas, and which is the better energy source for the environment. Natural gas derived from Marcellus Shale has been generally held to be cleaner, but Klemow said there’s not enough research for the public to be sure on this.

Marcellus Shale is a rock that is found under approximately 72 percent of the surface of Pennsylvania, according to the IEER. Natural gas, mostly composed of methane, is extracted from the shale to produce energy.


The problem, Klemow cited, is some researchers may have opinions on gas drilling that interfere with their studies.


“It seems that there are some scientists that have almost an anti-drilling agenda, so the question is whether they’re letting their preconceived ideas influence their science,” Klemow said.


With the IEER, Klemow said the goal is to analyze both sides of the debate and evaluate scientific findings without bias.


“We see the discussion is so fractured,” Klemow said. “People are really in favor of this, or people are really against it, and our view is that we see both benefits and drawbacks.”


Klemow worked with IEER Coordinator Ned Fetcher to write “Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Marcellus Shale,” an essay in which they attempted to surveying the findings – some of them contradictory – of various studies in an unbiased manner.


The paper was updated three times to include newer studies. However, Klemow said the most recent version, released in December 2011, is already out-dated because of how quickly information is being dispersed.


“Now there are a couple new studies that have come out, which this is sort of out of date also, so the science on this is moving very quickly,” Klemow said.


A particular study that has served to fuel this acceleration was a project that stated natural gas from shale could emit up to twice the greenhouse gases compared to coal or oil. The study, conducted by a Cornell University team led by Santoro Howarth and focusing on data from the Environmental Protection Agency, contradicted previous statements on natural gas.


“This just created a firestorm of controversy, and a lot of people were very, very upset by Howarth on this,” Klemow said. “If you have people in the industry saying we have to use gas and not coal, but then if you have some scientist saying ‘no, coal is better than gas,’ that’s going to have tremendous ramification.”


Fetcher explained the concerns were based on an apparent reversal of the status quo of natural gas. He said methane is often advertised as a cleaner form of energy than coal.


“Methane and natural gas have been sort of touted as the answer to some of our greenhouse gas problems, because presumably when you burn natural gas it’s much more efficient than burning coal,” Fetcher said.


Many researchers analyzed the same EPA data that Howarth did and found different conclusions. Howarth issued a rebuttal and fueled a heated and opinionated argument that Klemow said is detrimental to scientific reasoning.


“Science isn’t really based on opinion, we come to conclusions based on data,” Klemow said. “And if you have a disagreement, the way you resolve the disagreement is not like having an argument with somebody, you go out and you collect new data, or you do new experiments.”


He said this recycling of EPA information is one reason researchers need to collect new data.


“If anybody else just does a reanalysis of EPA data, or some of the other data … I’m going to throw up my hands and just scream and go running out the building,” Klemow laughed.


Fetcher said that most of the concern from this data is focused on leakage that occurs during the extraction period.


“When you bring it out of the ground, some of it’s going to leak into the atmosphere, and the problem with that is methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas,” Fetcher said.


He added that leakage may occur during processes such as shipment and storage, as well.

These leaked emissions can travel by wind to areas beyond the drilling sites, said Prahlad Murthy, associate professor of environmental engineering and earth science. He said this route of pollutants is one reason people should pay attention to air quality issues even if they do not live near a drilling site.


Murthy has been working with students to study damaging emissions from drilling operations, such as construction of roads to sites and usage of heavy-duty diesel vehicles. He said they found indication that smog can develop from nitrogen oxides emitted from burning natural gas.


“Initial results indicate there is potential for us to have smog related issues in the region,” Murthy said.


Despite the significance, Murthy said air issues have often been overlooked.


“Most of the focus has been on water,” Murthy said. “Air quality is an issue we need to be thinking about too, especially because, in the case of air, the problem doesn’t sit at the source.”


Lauren Burge, staff attorney for the Group Against Smog and Pollution, echoed that air quality often “falls under the radar.” She said a major issue with air emissions from Marcellus Shale is the long-term effects are unknown.


DEP announced on its website that long-term monitoring studies on natural gas air emissions will begin this year. To spark this process, DEP is requiring 99 natural gas facilities to submit data on their air emissions from 2011.


Burge said these reports, which will be available to the public by the end of the year, are important in planning and prevention by indentifying pollutants.


“It’s hard to be able to reduce those emissions if we don’t know what they are,” Burge said.


Also, the reports would help provide the state necessary information to EPA to determine if health standards are being met.


“Right now they don’t really have the information they need to report accurately on the Marcellus Shale industry,” Burge said.


Klemow feels these reports will be beneficial in eliminating what he calls an information gap on Marcellus Shale air emissions. However, he said the best solution to this lack of information would be scientific field work by scientists, which he hopes the IEER will be able to accomplish.


“If it keeps moving the way that it does, in two or three years we should have a good idea about what’s going on, but right now we’re still at such an infancy of knowledge,” Klemow said. “At Wilkes, we’d like to contribute to that knowledge.”