The academic face of the anti-fracking movement — Cornell marine ecologist Robert Howarth — increasingly looks like he’s willing to turn science into farce.
Last spring, the once-obscure professor became the go-to expert for anti-fracking journalists and lawmakers when he published a report claiming shale gas pollutes more than coal. The New York Times featured his study in two uncritical articles in one week, he was interviewed on dozens of talk shows — and the media echo chamber did the rest: He was a star.
Since then, other scientists have almost universally challenged his findings — but now he’s doubled down.
Last week, Howarth released another scientifically questionable study, now warning that fracking could push the world over a tipping point, sending temperatures irreversibly higher — an inflammatory and demonstrably incorrect assertion.
Here’s the backstory. Shale gas is acknowledged as an ideal “bridge fuel” to a cleaner energy future. It’s become cost-attractive thanks to fracking: a proven extraction technique used for decades, technologically tweaked to mine shale gas — notably the Marcellus Formation beneath a large swath of New York.
Thanks to fracking, America is poised to transform itself from a fuel pauper, dependent upon the whims of Mideast madmen and Russian oligarchs, into an energy exporter.
But hard leftists have always opposed any energy other than wind or solar. That’s where Howarth and the anti-fracking Park Foundation come in.
In an interview, Howarth told me his goal was to make the anti-fracking movement mainstream and fashionable. He said he met with the Ithaca-based foundation two years ago, agreeing to produce a study challenging the conventional wisdom that shale gas is comparatively clean.
The polluting impact of shale gas revolves around one key issue: how much methane gas is released during extraction. Methane has more short-term global-warming impact than any other fossil fuel. Howarth emerged from academic nowhere when he claimed shale-gas wells leak like sieves, venting methane half the time, spewing 7 percent to 8 percent of reserves into the atmosphere.
“That’s absurd,” says Michael Levi, director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council of Foreign Relations. “Most methane gas is either ‘delivered to sales’ with no leakage, or it’s burnt off through flaring, which diminishes its greenhouse impact.”
Renowned geologist Lawrence Cathles, also at Cornell, who published a scathing deconstruction of Howarth’s paper this month, says that he “doesn’t document venting but what the industry calls ‘capture.’”
Almost every independent researcher — at the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Energy Department and numerous independent university teams — has slammed Howarth’s conclusions. At a minimum, the evidence suggests he either acted in bad faith or is ignorant of gas technology.
The core problem: Howarth uses Environmental Protection Agency estimates dating to 2007 — ancient data, given how quickly the technology is evolving.
Crucially, he fails to account for innovation. Gas lost through leakage is money lost, literally into thin air. For that reason, new wells are now “green completed” — meaning most leaking gas is captured and sold rather than vented.
Cathles notes the latest Devon study, now being verified by the EPA, documenting that shale gas is vented in only 5 percent of wells. The Energy Department estimates only 1 percent to 2 percent of methane is now lost during production.
Bottom line, almost all nonindustry-linked researchers believe Howarth exaggerates the impact of shale-gas leakage by 10 to 20 times. “His conclusions are more a politically charged articulation than a balanced scientific assessment,” Cathles says.
Howarth hired an aggressive PR firm, the Hastings Group, to promote his politicized viewpoint. Scientists aren’t buying it, but many journalists fall for the fear-mongering.
Howarth doesn’t have to convince anyone he’s right to devastate New York’s budding shale industry and put tens of thousands of jobs into question. He wins if he muddies the waters enough to give cautious Albany bureaucrats reason to stall.
Almost every news story now frames this issue as a standoff between equally valid scientific experts. In fact, it’s really a debate between science and ideology.
Jon Entine is a senior research fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University/STATS.