Methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking“) wells have received a wave of coverage in the press recently, but plaintiffs will likely face an uphill battle in attempting to translate these headlines into legal claims.

At the end of June, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a report on the number of “casing and cement impairments” in wells in Pennsylvania.  Major national news outlets publicized the study under headlines such as “Fracking Study Finds New Gas Wells Leak More.”  However, this popular news coverage conflated the number of impairment-reports with actual rates of emission.  In fact, the researchers only analyzed state inspection reports of “casing and cement impairment,” which are largely based on measurements of well-pressure. The researchers did not actually analyze whether the impairments had led to leaking outside of the well, or — if the wells were indeed leaking — at what rate any of the wells were leaking. Even the authors themselves admit that “not every instance of loss of zonal isolation [i.e., an impairment] will lead to” contamination of the surrounding area or emission of gasses into the atmosphere — in other words, the record of an “impairment” is not equivalent to what is commonly considered a “leak.”  Therefore, while the study does indicate that state inspection reports have recorded more “impairments” for fracking wells, the study does not actually prove that fracking wells leak more than vertical wells.

Another study has also grabbed headlines under banners such as “Thousands of FrackingWells in Pennsylvania ‘May Be Leaking Methane.’: Study Finds Abandoned Wells Could Be Bigger Climate Change Contributor Than Thought.”  The “study” in question is actually a graduate student’s dissertation, not a study published in a peer-reviewed journal.  More importantly, the student only measured emissions from 19 abandoned wells. As there are between 280,000 and 970,000 abandoned wells in Pennsylvania, the dissertation’s sample size consists of as little as .002% of abandoned wells in Pennsylvania.  Moreover, these 19 wells may not be representative of the hundreds of thousands of other wells because a well’s propensity to leak depends upon its location, age, and depth.  It would not be good science to draw conclusions about statewide rates of emission from a handful data points without first establishing that the data are representative of the broader group. However, according to news reports, the dissertation is being adapted into an article for publication, so this is likely not the last we’ve heard of these 19 wells.

Thus, although these studies have provided fodder for eye-catching headlines, they are not actually scientifically rigorous analyses of emissions from fracking wells.  Because both studies lack actual measurements of emissions from a sufficiently large and representative sample of wells, they most likely could not be relied upon to draw conclusions about the environmental effects of fracking in general, let alone in a particular case.