By Gayathri Vaidyanathan
U.S. EPA is reviewing a complaint filed by an environmental group last week alleging that a scientist on the agency’s advisory board committed fraud.
The Environmental Defense Fund is also implicated in the complaint. EDF provided $2.3 million to the scientist, David Allen, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, who measured methane leakage from specific pieces of equipment on well pads. Allen was the head of EPA’s Science Advisory Board between 2012 and 2013.
The complaint, filed by NC Warn, alleges that the data collected during the study is suspect because the underlying instrument was prone to underestimating methane leaks under certain conditions. It claims that Allen failed to investigate the possibility thoroughly when alerted to it. EDF and EPA, the group alleges, were complicit since they did not challenge Allen “due to his stature.”
The complaint requests EPA’s inspector general to open an investigation of fraud, waste and abuse by “a high-ranking EPA official leading to the severe underreporting and lack of correction of methane venting and leakage throughout the US natural gas industry.”
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and the primary component of natural gas. It leaks during the process of fossil fuel extraction and helps warm the planet. EPA has found that the oil and gas industry is the second largest methane source in the United States, and it began regulating some of the industry’s emissions last month.
Timeline of the controversy
MAY – DECEMBER 2012
David Allen and colleagues sample methane leaks at oil and gas sites using the Bacharach Sampler.
Phase 1 study finds oil fields leak slightly less methane than federal government estimates; UT team begins Phase 2 study.
Touché Howard informs Allen of a potential problem with the measuring device.
Howard agrees to sign nondisclosure agreement to access Phase 1 raw data to spot errors in first study; UT declines.
Howard decides to publish his concerns about the sampler; EDF’s Steve Hamburg suggests Howard leave UT Phase 1 study out of his critique.
JULY – DECEMBER 2014
Hamburg ensures a thorough internal review.
Compiled by ClimateWire based on internal emails.
One of the studies that helped inform the methane regulations was Allen’s 2013 study, which found that natural gas sites in the U.S. release less methane than EPA stated at the time (EnergyWire, Sept. 17, 2013). The study was widely hailed by industry, particularly because it contradicted other studies that had found higher leakage rates.
Almost immediately, the study’s methods were challenged by an independent scientist, according to private emails and research reviewed by ClimateWire. The disagreement began in 2013, escalated in private exchanges the next year, spilled over into scientific literature in 2015 and has now led to the complaint being filed with EPA’s inspector general. The controversy has put EDF and Allen in the unusual position of having energy industry groups, which typically criticize studies on methane leakage, come to their defense.
The emails reveal that Allen and his colleagues shared their work with the American Petroleum Institute while it was in progress.
The scientist challenging EDF and Allen is Touché Howard, a retired consultant who invented a device called the Bacharach Sampler that the University of Texas team used to measure methane. The device, which resembles a backpack, sucks in air like a vacuum cleaner and then isolates the amount of methane contained in the airstream. It allows scientists to quantify the rate at which gas is escaping from valves, pneumatic controllers or pipelines.
The UT team had been unaware in 2012 when it measured methane in the field that the device malfunctioned under certain conditions, according to Howard and emails. ClimateWire reviewed a mix of correspondence, including emails given to the publication by Howard. Other emails were reviewed on MuckRock, a website where documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests are posted.
“The instrument loses its mind,” said Thomas Ferrara, a former colleague of Howard who has used the Bacharach extensively. “It’ll go 0.2, then it’ll go 1, then 0.2, then 2, then 0.5. It just starts bouncing around endlessly. It’s meaningless numbers.”
Whether this malfunction affected the UT measurements remains in contention. NC Warn, on behalf of Howard, alleges it did.
Brian Lamb, a professor of chemical engineering at Washington State University who collaborated with Allen and who has also worked with Howard on a different project, said that the instrument could be faulty.
“I think there definitely was an issue with the sampler,” he said. “The thing we don’t know was how widespread that issue was, how often it happened and how much it affected the data set. After the fact, it was hard to go back and recreate what the samplers was doing.”
Lauren Whittenberg, an EDF spokeswoman, said the sampler was used for just two of the five emissions sources quantified in the study. The study itself is just one of 16 studies on methane emissions organized by EDF, most of which have pointed to problems with methane leakage, she said.
“Even if one were to set aside Dr. Allen’s work entirely — which we are in no way suggesting — the overall results of this research continue to paint a clear, consistent and robust picture of a significant problem that had been largely overlooked or ignored for years, and one that is much larger than either industry or government had previously recognized,” Whittenberg said in an email.
API did not return ClimateWire‘s request for comment by deadline.
Allen said in a statement that he stands by the 2013 study and the scientists made redundant measurements to ensure accuracy.
“Our study team strongly asserts that the instrument we used and the measurements we made were not impacted by the claimed failure,” he said. “We note that the measurements with the [sampler] were made directly by highly trained personnel who operated the instrument within inches to feet of emissions being measured. At the emission rates for which the instrument failure is proposed, most of the emissions would be audible, and possibly detectable by odor.”
The journal in which the study was published, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is reviewing the allegations and will bring it to the attention of the editorial board.
An inventor’s warnings
The UT study was launched in response to the prevalent confusion in 2012 over how much methane was leaking from well pads. One of the key criteria for the study was transparency, particularly since the scientists were working in close collaboration with nine energy companies.
The scientists began their field measurements using the Bacharach instrument between May and December 2012.
When their work was published in 2013, Howard, the inventor of the instrument at the heart of the study, realized that the study’s data set may have been compromised. He alerted Allen to the possibility that the instrument may have underestimated methane emissions in some parts of the country.
To Howard, the problem was not the underestimate as much as the fact that the limitations of the Bacharach Sampler would go unnoticed. The tool is widely used in industry to measure and report methane emissions to EPA. The flaw could lead to faulty methane emissions data nationwide.
Although Howard was the inventor, he no longer works for the manufacturer of the device.
Following Howard’s warning, Allen agreed to look into the problem. In March 2014, two years after the data was collected, Allen and Howard field-tested the Bacharach Sampler owned by UT and did not find major problems. But there was a crucial difference, according to emails reviewed by ClimateWire. The software of the device had been upgraded, which reduced the frequency of malfunction.
Howard remained convinced that the 2013 study had been compromised by the older Bacharach Samplers due to some telltale patterns in the data. He wrote to Allen, EDF and API repeatedly about it. He asked Allen for the raw data so he could reanalyze the measurements, even agreeing to sign a nondisclosure agreement to get access.
Allen initially agreed to provide Howard with the data but later rescinded the offer.
In June 2014, Howard wrote to Steve Hamburg of EDF about the issue. He informed Hamburg that he was planning to publish a scientific study about the problems with the Bacharach Sampler.
Hamburg requested that Howard leave out the 2013 study, according to emails. Hamburg also told the concerned scientist that EDF would examine the issue.
“We have tried throughout our collective efforts to bring good data to the issue of methane emissions to ensure that there is transparency among the various teams,” Hamburg wrote. “Towards that end it seems like getting a group of experts who have not been involved in the studies in question to look at the issues you raise continues to be worth the investment. My instinct is to get that process moving quickly.”
Yesterday, EDF acknowledged that review process didn’t occur. Whittenberg said Hamburg offered to initiate a limited review that would not question the findings in Allen’s published paper.
“Since EDF did not carry out this research, we are not in a position to independently verify the results,” Whittenberg said in an email. “Nor would it be appropriate for us to try to do so outside the established process of scientific peer review. We also offered to Mr. Howard to set up a third party review process in which both parties would participate — Mr. Howard declined.”
In 2015, Howard published his concerns in Environmental Science & Technology. Allen challenged those claims in the same journal. Resolving whether the data set was faulty might be difficult in retrospect, acknowledged Ferrara, Howard’s former colleague.
The best chance now might be an independent group of researchers who are retracing the footsteps of Allen and the UT team and measuring methane leaks independently. Those scientists are also using the Bacharach, but they are making careful, duplicative measurements, Ferrara said.