EDF Sparks Mistrust, and Admiration, With Its Methane Research

Environmental Defense Fund fills a void in tackling critical climate issue, but to some, its collaboration with fossil fuel industry taints findings.

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Anti-fracking demonstrators protest in New York City in September 2014. The Environmental Defense Fund has carved out a unique role as the coordinator of a major research project to study fracking’s methane emissions. While the work fills a critical void, the group’s collaboration with fossil fuel industry has raised concerns. Credit: Bryan Thomas/Getty Images

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The Environmental Defense Fund is one of the nation’s most venerable environmental organizations, and many consider it one of the most effective. But its industry-collaborative approach to the study of methane leaks in natural gas drilling has drawn scrutiny from other environmental groups, who worry EDF has strayed into a gray area where science and the fossil fuel industry collide.

Those concerns stem from an ambitious project EDF embarked on in 2011, as an oil and gas boom swept the U.S. While environmentalists have increasingly called for an outright ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, amid concerns that it pollutes the air and water, stifles growth of renewable energy, and might accelerate rather than slow climate change, EDF decided to probe the industry’s climate impacts. And it did so by collaborating with natural gas companies, which agreed to partially fund the research and give EDF access to gas sites for taking crucial measurements.

EDF set out to study how much methane, the main component of natural gas, leaks into the atmosphere at every stage of gas production, development, transportation and consumption. Methane is dozens of times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and earlier research suggested that as natural gas displaces coal, methane leaks would erase the climate benefits of reduced coal-burning.  

Environmental groups almost never take on scientific research efforts. Investigations on this scale are normally organized by the federal government or the National Academy of Sciences. Coordinating what’s become an $18 million series of 16 studies by more than 100 researchers has turned EDF into a heavyweight on the science of methane pollution. The project’s findings will influence government policy concerning the $292 billion-a-year U.S. oil and gas extraction industry and the regulation of fracking.

“What EDF is trying to do is put filters on cigarettes,” said Sandra Steingraber, a prominent activist, biologist and scholar-in-residence at New York’s Ithaca College. “There’s no way we can frack our way to climate stability. There’s no scientific evidence for that.”

Working with gas companies deepened many environmentalists’ longstanding frustration and mistrust of EDF, which has collaborated with industry on green issues for three decades. It further solidified the group’s position as an outlier in the environmental movement.

Unlike many green groups, EDF generally supports fracking with appropriate regulations, including a ban on the practice in sensitive areas. Critics charge that the methane studies may encourage expansion of a dangerous technology.

InsideClimate News interviewed 40 scientists, activists, academics and industry representatives—more than half of whom aren’t involved with the EDF research. This group included 15 methane researchers. None of them said they thought the industry was manipulating EDF’s research results or pressuring scientists to change their data.

However, eight of the 15 (including several who participated in the studies) expressed concerns over the transparency and quality of the work. Some researchers said the design of the studies may result in findings that understate leakage. EDF also required non-disclosure agreements barring scientists from gathering feedback on preliminary findings, an aspect of the research process that scientists usually count on to check their work with colleagues before publication.

EDF President Fred Krupp said the science behind the methane studies was designed to be “impeccable” and “bulletproof.”  

Natural gas will continue “to be used for at least another few years,” he said in an hour-long interview with InsideClimate News in his Manhattan office. “And while it’s being used, the damage to the atmosphere is substantial unless the leaks are controlled. I think somebody has to get down and dirty and working on that issue, even though there’s mixed opinions to whether it’s the right thing or the good thing to do.”

Fred Krupp, EDF’s president, in his Manhattan office in February 2015. Credit: Lisa Song/InsideClimate News

Working With Industry

The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Defense Fund is one of the oldest and largest green groups in the U.S. Founded in 1967, the organization’s unofficial motto in its early years was “sue the bastards.” It scored major environmental victories, including a ban on the pesticide DDT and the phasing out of lead from gasoline.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s pro-industry White House essentially shut environmental groups out of Washington. In response, EDF hired Krupp, an environmental lawyer in Connecticut, as executive director, later president. He led a more business-friendly makeover of EDF that remains to this day.

“When Fred Krupp took over, he not only took EDF in a new direction, but in a direction that was a big shift from what the entire environmental movement had been doing,” said Adam Rome, an environmental historian at the University of Delaware. “Even though EDF has won grudging respect from some people since turning to market solutions, it has always been more open to question than other groups.”

EDF’s interest in methane started around 2010 as fracking spurred a domestic fossil fuel boom. At the time, regulators, the fossil fuel industry and even some environmental groups argued that natural gas provides a clear climate advantage over coal, in part because gas power plants emit half as much carbon dioxide as coal plants.

Mainstream green groups including the Sierra Club staked national campaigns on the idea that natural gas could be a “bridge fuel” to an economy driven by renewable energy. They later backtracked over concerns that the gas boom was slowing growth in renewables, and as evidence mounted of fracking’s health effects and the magnitude of methane leaks.

In September 2010, Krupp held a staff meeting to discuss the failure of the Waxman-Markey bill, federal legislation backed by EDF and other green groups that would have placed a price on carbon pollution. The collapse of that bill was an expensive and “historic failure” for the environmental movement, Rome said.

What, Krupp wondered, should EDF do next? Some staffers said EDF should advocate a rapid shift from coal to gas alongside a renewable energy push, Krupp said. But Steven Hamburg, EDF’s chief scientist, warned the group about the risks of methane leaks.

That was Krupp’s introduction to the methane problem, he said, and after the meeting he “started reading everything I could” about this emerging field of research.

That included a 2011 paper in the journal Climate Change by Cornell University researchers Robert Howarth, an earth systems science professor; Renee Santoro, then a research technician; and Anthony Ingraffea, an engineering professor. Their findings on methane leakage were a bombshell: They estimated that shale gas had a similar or higher greenhouse gas footprint than coal.

Those findings solidified EDF’s interest in methane research, as did a 2011 report from an Energy Department shale gas panel on which Krupp served.

The panel called for federal studies of fugitive methane emissions, but Krupp soon grew impatient with the government’s slow pace and asked Hamburg to set up EDF’s own project. In November 2011, EDF invited dozens of university and government researchers to a brainstorming session. Most of them ended up joining the EDF research, Hamburg said.

Researchers Excluded

The project involves 95 universities, natural gas companies, research centers and government agencies. The research ultimately will produce two-dozen peer-reviewed papers, most of them still under way.

Kathryn Clay, vice president of policy strategy at the American Gas Association, said her organization agreed to work with EDF because the AGA saw it as an opportunity to obtain high-quality data with “an immense amount of credibility.”

EDF’s methane initiative parallels other studies at government agencies and universities, but it remains the most comprehensive in scope, said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Tom Ryerson, a methane researcher unaffiliated with EDF’s work. “Their commitment to doing that is impressive,” he said.

Yet some pioneers in methane research were excluded, including Ingraffea, the Cornell engineer who co-authored the 2011 Climate Change paper, and Howarth, the paper’s lead author, who had taken a two-year leave of absence from Cornell in 2000 to direct EDF’s oceans program.

That 2011 paper drew fierce opposition from the industry, which argued the work was flawed and  compromised by the authors’ anti-fracking stance. Nathan Phillips, a Boston University professor who co-authored an EDF study, called them “well-respected research scientists,” but said, “I think in a way their position was made clear in the 2011 paper, and that’s not what EDF was looking to really support.”

Hamburg said in an email, “Tony and Bob are good scientists,” but neither had direct experience measuring methane leaks. In addition, EDF’s goal was to “start with a clean slate…and see where the data led us.”

Howarth said he believes EDF was unwilling to work with strong industry critics. Pro-industry voices are well represented in the studies as advisers and collaborators, he said, but there’s no equivalent from the other side.

“We would not attempt to characterize any of the participating researchers as pro- or anti-anything,” said Eric Pooley, EDF’s senior vice president for strategy and communications, in an email. He called the group of researchers “fiercely and distinctly independent,” and said some of the academic scientists have been criticized by the industry for their work in the field.

Also excluded was Bob Ackley, a former contractor who spent decades tracking urban methane leaks for utility companies. He often collaborates with Phillips on research, but also is involved in litigation against the utility company National Grid, which partnered with EDF on three methane studies.

Non-Disclosure Agreements

Once the studies began, nearly everyone involved had to sign non-disclosure agreements.

“The information in the EDF studies is much more tightly controlled” than usual, said Robert Jackson, a Stanford University earth science professor who is part of three methane studies. “It’s very unusual for a foundation to give you funding as a researcher and make you sign a non-disclosure agreement. … I think it’s partly sensitivity. It’s partly corporate involvement. It’s partly controlling the message.”

NOAA’s Ryerson said non-disclosure agreements are common with industry funding.

“Because it’s such a high-profile effort with lots of media attention, everyone, especially the industry who’s putting money on the line, wants to really understand what the implications are,” Ryerson said. “A bad interpretation early on is sometimes hard to retract.”

The agreements prohibited anyone—academic scientists, industry representatives and EDF staffers alike—from discussing the results until they were released in a peer-reviewed journal, Hamburg said. Once they’re published, he said, people are free to say whatever they want to say.

“There’s no secrecy here; it’s just discipline,” Hamburg said. “Let the process go through maturity, and let that result go out and speak for itself.”

The EDF stipulation means that academic researchers can’t present preliminary findings at scientific conferences—a commonly used technique for gathering feedback from colleagues in the field. This restriction could lead to mistakes that might have been caught if the scientists were free to share their work, Howarth said.

Published Studies

EDF’s first methane study was published in September 2013 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Nine natural gas operators provided 90 percent of the funding, as well as access to company property so that researchers could take measurements at well sites.

Led by chemical engineering professor David Allen at the University of Texas-Austin, the study found that leak rates from some parts of the production process were higher than estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency, while others were lower. The overall rate was about 10 percent below EPA’s numbers.

Oil and gas trade groups said the results showed the industry’s progress in reducing methane leaks. Clay, the American Gas Association vice president, said EDF’s use of university scientists and its commitment to peer-reviewed papers “assured it would have the independent flavor that was important for the credibility of the work.”

But Krupp had a different spin on the results. He said the findings highlighted the need for regulations, because the production processes that emitted less methane were subject to new EPA rules issued around the time Allen’s team began taking measurements.

For each of the studies with industry partners, EDF created a steering committee, a technical advisory panel and a scientific advisory panel to manage logistics, funding details and technical expertise. The panel members are a mix of EDF and industry staff and academic scientists, Hamburg said. They provide advice throughout the studies, but final decisions about submitted papers rest with the academic researcher who leads each study, he said. “Nobody, including EDF, had veto power over the papers,” he said.

Jackson, the Stanford scientist, said EDF deserves credit for collaborating with industry.

“At some point you have to engage with industry if you’re interested in solutions,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to talk to the people who make their living doing what you’re studying.”

The PNAS results drew fire from shale gas opponents. Phil Radford, then executive director of Greenpeace USA, warned in an op-ed that the study could “be used as PR by the natural gas industry to promote their pollution.” He took particular issue with how industry “chose the locations and times of the wells that were studied.”

EDF says it took steps to ensure scientific integrity. During a conference call for reporters when the study was released, Allen said his research team chose the specific days when they would take measurements and selected the wells they visited from a list of available locations provided by the companies.

Allen’s approach to measuring leaks also drew criticism. The Allen paper was a “bottom-up” study, in which scientists take measurements at a limited number of sites and extrapolate the findings to calculate an overall leak rate. This method often produces lower estimates than “top-down” studies, in which researchers track methane emissions over large areas using instruments mounted on aircraft.

Allen did not respond to requests for comment.

EDF has addressed that issue by funding a number of top-down studies that will catch emissions from all operators in a region, instead of just the EDF partners, Hamburg said. Researchers are also working to reconcile discrepancies between findings in bottom-up and top-down studies, he said. In one ongoing project, multiple teams took both types of measurements simultaneously in the Barnett Shale of North Texas. EDF expects to publish 10 research papers from that study.

Not all the EDF studies involve heavy industry participation. Amy Townsend-Small, a geology professor at the University of Cincinnati who’s part of the Barnett study, said criticism of the Allen paper inspired her team to minimize the industry’s involvement in their work.

For the Boston paper co-authored by Phillips, a top-down study that found leak rates several times higher than government estimates, neither EDF nor the industry had any role in the study design, analysis or interpretation, according to lead author Kathryn McKain, a Harvard University doctoral student. Most of the study’s funding came from government grants, and McKain said she didn’t have to sign a non-disclosure agreement despite EDF’s financial support.

Colorado Rules

As EDF built up its scientific expertise on methane leaks, it offered its services to lawmakers who wanted to respond to environmentalists’ mounting concerns over fracking by regulating the industry. It worked alongside three of Colorado’s largest oil and gas companies in 2013 at the request of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper to advise him on the state’s fracking regulations. For nearly a year, EDF was the only environmental group at the negotiating table, though others were brought in later to review the rules before release.

The regulations require companies to install monitoring equipment at drilling sites to detect leaks of methane and other toxic gases. They also require leaks to be fixed within 15 days.

Most environmental leaders hailed the rules for being the first in the nation to limit methane emissions from drilling sites.

But within Colorado, grassroots groups that had been pushing for a fracking ban said they felt frustrated and misrepresented by an organization with close industry ties.

The regulations “were just another public pacifier,” said Shane Davis, a Colorado-based fracking activist. “Grassroots communities have gotten so astute on who the enemy is. It’s not just the governor that supports fracking. It’s not just the industry. It’s these people who come in in sheep’s clothing, but are wolves, like EDF. EDF should stand for ‘environmental defense fraud.’ They’re absolute sellouts.”

There is a feeling within the environmental movement that EDF’s fracking work might actually be encouraging growth of the industry. On the other hand, environmentalists acknowledge that EDF has managed to pass some of the nation’s strictest regulations where others have failed.

“Bans and moratoriums are few and far between relative to where oil and gas is being drilled and produced in the United States,” said Bruce Baizel, the Colorado-based director of Earthworks’ energy program. “What do you do in the meantime while you’re trying to work on a ban? Kids are getting sick. Moms can’t live in their houses. You’ve got to try to straddle both sides.”

At the federal level, EDF has been a key player in pushing the EPA to regulate methane. It was the only environmental organization to serve as a technical reviewer on the white papers the agency will use to write its rules.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, a political advocacy group, said EDF has been “one of—if not the—leading voices on the federal regulations.”

“Bottom line, it has played one of the biggest leadership roles on the whole methane effort,” he said.

EDF’S Evolving Position

As the research progresses, EDF’s stance on natural gas appears to be shifting toward greater doubt about climate benefits.

In September 2012, as the studies got under way, EDF chief counsel and associate vice president Mark Brownstein wrote on an EDF blog: “On balance, we think substituting natural gas for coal can provide net environmental value, including a lower greenhouse gas footprint.”

Two years later, when a top-down EDF study showed higher-than-expected leak rates from Colorado, EDF’s press release referred only to the “potential climate benefits of natural gas.”

“Almost universally, recent studies have shown methane leakage rates from this industry are higher than expected nationwide,” EDF wrote.

During a January conference call about the Obama administration’s new methane rules, Brownstein said that although the industry has “a few companies who are examples of leaders,” federal rules are needed for thousands of other companies. And in a March 24 blog post urging regulation of methane emissions, Brownstein highlighted the need for industry to address the non-methane effects of fracking, including earthquakes and air and water pollution.

This level of criticism from EDF would have been unthinkable in 2012, Ingraffea said. EDF should “acknowledge publicly that they’re sort of kind of gradually backing down from their original policy that shale gas is a bridge fuel to a renewable future,” he said.

Krupp said EDF has never wavered from its ultimate goal of zero-carbon energy, and the organization’s fastest-growing sector is its renewable energy program.

His takeaway from the EDF studies so far is that more regulations are needed, Krupp said. The leakage rates found over Boston, for example, are simply “unacceptable.”

Two other recent studies from EDF found smaller-than-expected emissions from urban distribution pipelines and several shale gas fields. EDF’s press releases said the low leak rates were good news but repeated its support for strong regulations.

“Our commitment is to follow the science wherever it leads,” Krupp said. “Even when it leads into places we don’t expect.”

InsideClimate News reporter Naveena Sadasivam contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story identified Tom Ryerson as a NASA scientist. He works for NOAA, not NASA.

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