‘Controversy in Science is Good’

A conversation with fracking skeptic Prof. Anthony Ingraffea

Anthony Ingraffeaphoto courtesy Cornell University

In 2011, after more than 30 years as an engineering professor at Cornell University, Anthony Ingraffea found himself shoved into the public spotlight. The cause? A seemingly benign paper on the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas extracted from shale formations — a paper that sparked a global discussion about hydraulic fracturing and called into question President Obama’s “all-of-the-above” energy policy. Since publication of the paper, Ingraffea’s life and career have changed significantly. Though he continues to work with graduate students at Cornell University, he has published seven new papers related to shale gas and oil. He has also become a dedicated opponent of fracking, making over 100 speeches in the past four years and rubbing shoulders with politicians and Hollywood celebrities alike. Ingraffea has also become accustomed to weathering attacks, both personal and professional, as naysayers have criticized his findings and attempted to discredit his work. Ask him if he is loosing any sleep over these attacks, and he will give you an emphatic “NO.” Subsequent research has, he says, shown that his paper was right on point. And, as Ingraffea puts it, “controversy in science is good.”

To start, could you give a little background on how hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas in shale formations impacts climate change?

When shale gas kicked-off in the last 10 years, people called it a bridge fuel to a more climate friendly energy future because it emits less carbon dioxide than coal when burned. But what makes natural gas from shale more pernicious is that it is methane, and it can leak. From the time you drill a well to the time the gas gets to the end use, there are many stages at which gas can leak: Drilling, fracking, recovery, storage, transportation, processing, compression, dehumidification, storage, long-distance pipelines, distribution pipelines, and end use. At every one of those steps, there can be leakage.

And methane, in terms of its impact on climate change, can be seen as just as important as carbon dioxide, because kilogram for kilogram, methane is more heat trapping than carbon dioxide.

So, a few people, a very few people, asked a very important question: is shale gas really a bridge fuel if its effect on climate change is much more potent than carbon dioxide? And that question didn’t get formally asked in the peer review literature until Bob Howarth, Renee Santoro, and I published our paper in 2011.

Our paper is an analysis of the estimates. We didn’t go out and measure anything. We didn’t have the resources or the time. We took what we thought were the estimated leakage rates and we put them through the best available science about methane’s impact on climate change to ask: What would this amount of leakage do? And the answer was: holy shit. Bad. Because methane’s impact on climate change is 100 times greater than carbon dioxide when measured over a few decades.

So, because it leaks, and because it’s so potent, you have a dirtier fossil fuel. In fact, in that paper we wrote two years ago, we claimed that methane was the dirtiest of all fossil fuels because of its dual effect.

How did you and your colleagues decide to look at this topic? Was there an “aha” moment?

Bob Howarth is an environmental ecologist who has studied air and water — and human impacts on air and water — for his entire career.  He and I were on the same Cornell campus for many years without knowing each other. Bob called me one day and asked me to lunch. And at lunch he said he was thinking of doing some research to investigate the scientific question of whether methane from shale gas is a bridge fuel, whether it is better for climate than just continuing to use other fossil fuels. And he needed to know how they get this stuff out of the ground. So we just joined forces.

If Bob hadn’t thought up the question, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. And a lot of other things currently underway across the country would not have happened. Because, in my opinion, if our paper hadn’t been published, no one would have bothered. And maybe that’s an exaggeration. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) probably would have bothered. But certainly the pace at which measurements are now being made across the methane life cycle, and the number of groups doing the measurements on methane leakage rates, is just growing very, very rapidly. I would say there is a paper a month now coming out on leakage measurements. And every single paper that has been published since 2011 which involves actual methane leakage measurements is either consistent with or higher than what our guesses were. Things are probably worse than what we thought.

I understand that there has been some controversy surrounding the methane leakage estimates and climate impact estimates published in your paper. Would you talk a little bit about the controversy?

Controversy in science is good. It makes people think more deeply than they had been thinking. Why did our paper generate controversy? Because we asked the question whether shale gas is a bridge fuel. We weren’t supposed to ask the question. Policies had already been set in place. Our federal government policy was set in stone. Go back and read President Obama’s State of the Union addresses. He said we have 100 years of natural gas, 500,000 jobs. When the president speaks things like that in a State of the Union address two years running, the rest of the government listens. Large environmental groups that came out in support of natural gas — Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, NRDC – shall we say got caught with certain parts of their attire in an unusual state.

The Environmental Defense Fund found itself painted into a corner — instead of doing science-based policy; it now had to do policy-based science. In other words, their policy continues to be that shale gas can be developed safely and that it is a bridge fuel. From a climate point of view, they say it’s good, as long as the methane leakage rate is less than 3.2 percent. So they drove that stake in the ground. But no one will ever know a number that says “that is the amount of natural gas that is leaking.” It’s a physical impossibility to do that.

Typically, in well-founded scientific investigations that result in peer-reviewed literature, you never see an exact number. You can see a range with uncertainty limits. So in our paper we tried to do that, except all we had were estimates, so we did an upper bound and a lower bound, which is the next best thing.

What the naysayers did was read our paper and take our highest methane leak rate estimate, saying our paper claimed that 7.9 percent of all the natural gas produced in the United States every year leaks. We didn’t say that. What we did say was that 7.9 percent was about as high as we think it might be, it could be as little as 3.6 percent, we are pretty sure it’s somewhere in between, but we won’t know unless we measure it. So people should get out there and start measuring.

And it’s the most successful paper I’ve ever been associated with, because it immediately triggered a response. People were out there measuring. I can’t get my kids to do things I ask them to do, but we write a paper, and now hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent taking measurements.

Another part of the controversy comes from this idea that the climate impact of methane should be measured over 100 years instead of over a few decades. We looked at both time ranges in our paper. We said, here’s the impact of methane over 100 years, here’s the impact over 20 years, and the 20 year impact is more important because of current climate science. Low and behold, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report came out in September and said that there is no scientific basis for selecting the 100-year timeframe. That it’s a policy decision. We said it in our paper, they agreed.

I’ll conclude by saying that if we were wrong, so totally wrong, if our work was so discredited and we were so unqualified to publish that paper, why are so many other organizations — including the federal government, many prestigious universities, industry itself, large environmental groups — spending tens of millions of dollars in response. You would think that if it was just easy to say that we were unqualified and therefore discredited, then life goes on. It didn’t happen that way, did it? And if we were so wrong, why is it every single paper that has been published so far that actually talks about measurements, that includes actual measurements, is consistent with or higher than what our predictions were?

People tried to shoot the messengers.

Could you talk about how your research, and the public response to your research, has impacted your work? How has it has changed your role is as a researcher and as an advocate?

When we started working on that first paper in 2009, I had never written or been associated with a paper like that. That was the first time I had ventured into an area that had what can now be seen as profound social, political, and economic impacts. And I hadn’t thought that through.

It got me hooked. I’m now addicted. My professional activities have broadened. From that time to now, I’ve spent at least as much time working at the intersection of science, technology, engineering, society, politics, and economics, as I have working with my graduate students. Now I’m doing this whole range of studies from policy, to water, to methane, to climate. And we are working on our seventh paper related to shale gas and shale oil.

How has this changed me as an advocate?

If you had called me an advocate in 2009, I would have said “a what?” Advocacy wasn’t on my radar. It wasn’t required in anything I had done up to that point. And I’m glad you used the work advocate rather than activist. I am not an activist. Take an engineer or a scientist, and array before that person the potential range of actions they could take as a professional. At one end of the spectrum is what other people have called “over the transom” science. I see a question, I do scientific investigation, I publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, and I throw the paper over the transom and hopefully someone walks by, picks it up, and does something with it. That is the traditional, very, very common role that engineers and scientists take. At the other end of the spectrum is violent terrorism.

Another part of the spectrum is what I call advocacy. You’ve done science, or you’ve learned science from others and interpreted it, and you detect that the important outgrowth of that science is not being heard, or not being acted upon in the best public interest, whether that is economic interest, social interest, health interest, or environmental interest. You make a judgment. Now, in addition to doing the science, writing about the science, speaking about the science, you present the science to the power structure. That’s advocacy. So I’ve done that — presented my research to legislators and regulators from the city level all the way up to the federal level. And I will continue to do that. They are asking me: How should I understand this? What does this mean? What are the impacts? What should we do? And when they ask, I answer. And when they don’t ask, I tell them they should.

That’s different from activism. Activism is when you’ve moved out of the arena of rational discourse, and gone to the next step which is appealing to the emotion. I’m going to carry a banner to a protest, I’m going to sit in on somebody’s office, I’m going to lie down in front of a frack truck, I’m going to get arrested and go to jail. Fine. If that’s where you’ve gotten, then that’s what you’ve got to do. It’s the conscience speaking. I’m not there. I won’t go there, not now, because there is still a lot of science that needs to be done. As soon as I go there, then I am discrediting myself.

At the same time, there is also the issue of conflict of interest, which I see as very closely related to one’s ability to be an advocate or an activist. Once you’re taking money in your pocket, your accreditation as a scientist is truly diminished. I wouldn’t say it is completely eliminated, but it now calls into question whether what you’ve done should be seen in the cold cruel light of day as purely objective. You’ve been paid, and now you want people to believe that you weren’t paid to say something. It’s just harder to believe. So, whereas in my traditional Cornell life I write proposals, I get grants, I’m paid as a consultant, I take home money that goes in my pocket, in this other work, nothing. Zero. I have not been paid a penny. I won’t accept a penny. I’ve been offered many times. I won’t accept. Everything I do is pro bono. Again, to try to keep myself away from being labeled as an activist, or away from being labeled as a paid mouth.

Life has changed.

Do you have any thoughts about where we should turn for our energy supply as we move away from oil and gas?

It’s not whether we should, we must turn to non-climate threatening energy sources, and those are obviously wind, water, sun, and geothermal. All the above, but none of the below — notice I didn’t say more fossil fuels, I didn’t say nuclear.

The question really is how quickly we can do it. Given what the science is telling us about climate change, we have to speed things up. And things have sped up, it’s not like we haven’t started. There’s substantial wind, solar, and water energy production worldwide, and in the US, and production is growing much more quickly than any fossil fuel source.

But the trick is, how do you maintain the standard of living in the US, and keep raising the standard of living in places where it is way below the US, while at the same time ramping down the traditional 80 percent fossil fuel energy supply and ramping up the much less destructive, non-fossil fuel supply. Obviously that’s not a technical question, that’s not a science question, that’s not a policy question. It’s all of the above. And it all comes down to money.

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