NC Warn, an environmental watchdog organization based in Durham, filed a federal complaint Wednesday alleging that a U.S. official tried to hide the severity of methane leaks across the natural gas industry in two reports published in 2013 and 2014.
The 68-page complaint to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General alleges that Dr. David Allen, formerly the head of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, has led an ongoing effort to cover up under-reporting of two devices used to measure methane releases at hundreds of thousands of tanks, drilling sites and other gas equipment nationally and around the world.
Allen, a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin with connections to the oil and gas industry, headed two Environmental Defense Fund studies addressing concerns about the climate impacts of methane emissions from gas wells drilled during the fracking boom. The 2013 study showed lower levels of methane emissions from shale gas compared to similar studies, and the oil and gas industry has used that study to pressure the EPA to back off efforts to reduce methane releases.
Touché Howard, an engineer who invented Bacharach Hi-Flow Sampler for methane emissions, identified a flaw in his technology that meant emissions could be under-reported up to 100-fold. NC Warn says Allen promoted the two flawed studies despite warnings from Howard. Other EPA officials were allegedly aware of the issue but declined to confront Allen, according to the complaint.
NC Warn says Allen’s actions constitute scientific fraud and possibly criminal misconduct, and the EPA’s failure to curb widespread methane emissions has urgent climate and safety implications.
“The EPA’s failure to order feasible reductions of methane leaks and venting has robbed humanity of crucial years to slow the climate crisis,” said Jim Warren, the director of NC Warn, in a statement. “The cover-up by Allen’s team has allowed the industry to dig in for years of delay in cutting emissions at the worst possible time.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found in 2013 that methane is 100 times worse than CO2 as a heat trapping gas over the first ten years and around 86 times worse than CO2 over twenty years.
Warren says natural gas, which is largely composed of methane, “is not what people had hoped it would be” in terms of providing a clean source of energy as a replacement for coal and a means of making the nation energy independent.
“Energy corporations have been selling this idea for five or six years, they’ve spent billions promoting fracked gas,” Warren says. “This is very much related to North Carolina’s situation because of what has become the hyper-urgency of the climate crisis and the fact that Duke Energy has been moving aggressively to expand its use of shale gas.”
Duke Energy has plans to build what amounts to fifteen large natural gas-fired power plants in the Carolinas, a giant natural gas pipeline to run directly through the state and is acquiring Piedmont Natural Gas for $6 billion.
“The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned the insurance industry in April that we could be looking at ten feet of sea level rise by 2050,” Warren says. “Other scientists have warned the same thing. You can imagine why folks are so concerned.”
You can read NC Warn’s complaint to the EPA below.