Pulling Back The Curtain On Greenhouse Gas Studies
Some recent studies have generated sensational headlines about greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and natural gas industry. Twisting studies to grab more clicks is nothing new, but under closer scrutiny the studies don’t support the hype.
Take for example The Guardian’s recent headline, “Just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, according to a new report.” Obviously such a claim grabs people’s attention. The article quickly received over 80,000 shares on Facebook. Those who don’t have to time or the interest to dive into the study, “The Carbon Majors Report,” assume that the world’s largest oil, natural gas and coal companies are almost single-handedly responsible for all man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
The Guardian’s narrative doesn’t even match what the report actually says: “Direct operational emissions and emissions from the use of sold products are attributed to the extraction and production of oil, gas, and coal.” (emphasis added) In other words, emissions from cars, planes, manufacturing, home heating, and many other activities are attributable to fossil fuel producers, not drivers, air passengers, manufacturers, homeowners–basically all of us.
If you’re measuring the footprint of fossil fuel consumption and assigning it to the producers, there’s no way you could have a list of the top emitters as anything other than fossil fuel companies. Using that flawed logic, nobody who uses fossil fuels is responsible for any greenhouse emissions, it’s only the fossil fuel suppliers. The Onion does a better job explaining who’s actually responsible than a supposedly serious “study.”
Another study, by Stanford University, titled, “Climate impacts of oil extraction increase significantly with oilfield age” looked to grab headlines by “uncovering” the basic fact that as oil wells age and produce less, the level of greenhouse gases emitted per unit of production rises. Most oil wells require artificial lift, such as pumpjacks, to draw oil and natural gas to the surface. Artificial lift requires energy, which obviously emits some greenhouse gases. As a well ages, the amount of oil produced decreases, while artificial lift machinery must continue to operate.
Although emissions per unit of energy produced may rise, declining production means emissions decline in absolute terms. Stanford scientists may bill this as a “new finding” with implications for climate policy, but this is far from a revelation; it’s a totally mundane fact of oilfield operations.
Although greenhouse gas intensity increases as production declines, older fields remain an important resource. Maximizing the usable life of wells means we maximize the yield of a finite resource. Increasing yields from old fields slows the pace of new development and ultimately saves energy.
Misrepresentations of oil and natural gas that ignore all their benefits for consumers does a disservice to climate change conversations. In reality, increased use of natural gas to generate electricity is the primary reason the United States has reduced greenhouse gas emissions more than any other country. The industry has made great strides, reducing methane emissions by 20% since 1990 even as production has increased over 50%. On a global scale, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration finds that rising methane levels come from natural sources like wetlands and agriculture while oil and natural gas industry emissions are declining.
With “studies” developed to back policy agendas, it’s incumbent upon the reader to view things with a critical eye. The Carbon Majors and Stanford University reports provide examples of how a cursory read can leave readers with a skewed understanding of the facts.
Ryan Streams is the manager of regulatory affairs at the Western Energy Alliance. The Alliance represents the Western oil and natural gas industry and is a supporter of Western Wire.