THE natural gas industry received more good news this week in a published study that found drilling for natural gas does not emit as much methane into the atmosphere as originally estimated.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, undercuts a major environmental argument against fracking.
Natural gas is essentially methane, CH4. It is widely used across the world as an industrial fuel, as well as a home and business heating fuel. Compared to many other sources of fuel, it burns relatively cleanly. In the atmosphere, methane is a greenhouse gas that, along with carbon dioxide, is linked to global warming.
The study found that during the process of extracting natural gas from the ground, total leakage at the study sites was 0.42 percent - less than one half of one percent - of all produced gas, somewhat less than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had estimated to be the national average.
While the study was funded largely by industry, a portion of the funding also came from the Environmental Defense Fund.
Steve Hamburg, the EDF's chief scientist, said "These are hard numbers using the best scientific approach that we can."
Also, National Academy of Sciences president Ralph Cicerone, himself an atmospheric scientist, said the study's authors represent "some of the very best experts around the country."
The study should give the industry confidence, and its critics need to realize that expanded use of natural gas is a benefit to the nation as it helps reduce emissions as well as reducing our nation's reliance on imported sources of energy.
That said, this is not a study to end all studies. For instance, it recorded the amount of natural gas released only during the extraction process at 489 selected well sites.
"They do better when they know they are being carefully watched," said Cornell University's Robert Howarth, a scientist who first raised alarms about methane leaks.
The study also did not look at leaks downstream of the well sites, in the transportation and distribution segments of the natural gas industry. The industry would do well to minimize gas releases in those segments as well.
Still the study is good news.
Yes, the public should continue to watch the industry and maintain high expectations. Yes, the industry needs to monitor itself to reduce emissions and reduce other negative impacts of operations.
And meanwhile, we all can benefit from an abundant, efficient and domestic source of energy that creates jobs at home.