Were flawed methods used for a major national methane study? A North Carolina group thinks so.

A North Carolina environmental advocacy group wants the inspector general for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to look into whether researchers who led a major study on methane releases from the oil and gas industry used flawed methods that minimized the results.

The group, NC Warn, claims that David Allen, the University of Texas engineering professor who led the 2013 industry-funded study, ignored flaws pointed out by a methane expert and air quality consultant.

"What we are alleging is a cover-up, scientific fraud and possibly criminal misconduct by a high-ranking EPA official and perhaps others," Jim Warren, executive director of NC Warn, told InsideClimate News.

PublicSource wrote about the controversy in August 2015. The methane expert, Touché Howard, invented the technology for a device used by Allen and his fellow researchers for methane studies they conducted in 2013 and 2014. Howard alerted Allen to a possible flaw in the sensor after the 2013 study, according to a report Howard published that said the methane studies “systematically underestimated” the amount of methane leaking into the atmosphere.

But Allen defended his methods.

From InsideClimate News:

"Our study team strongly asserts that the instrument we used and the measurements we made were not impacted by the claimed failure," Allen said in a statement responding to the NC Warn allegations.

Methane traps heat in the atmosphere 84 times more effectively than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is released. Methane is the primary component of natural gas. Though natural gas has been hailed as the transition fuel, methane escaping during the production, delivery and use of natural gas can undermine the climate benefit natural gas has over other fossil fuels.

The contested studies were published while Allen was chairman of the EPA’s outside science advisory board. Allen’s work was part of a much larger series of studies coordinated by the Environmental Defense Fund in collaboration with the oil and gas industry. The Environmental Defense Fund has been criticized in the past for its close relationship with industry.

In the face of a climate crisis, NC Warn calls for a zero-emissions standard for oil and gas operations.

Should the inspector general open a formal investigation, the methane issue will be put in the forefront of conversation as the contentious aspects of methane regulations are being debated in Washington.

In January, Gov. Tom Wolf announced a four-point plan to reduce methane emissions in the state.

Wolf’s plan includes developing a new “general permit for oil and gas exploration, development, and production facilities,” which would apply to new — not already existing — oil and gas operations in the state, according to the press release. In an effort to reduce methane leaks, the new permit would require that companies use the best available equipment and procedures, and there would be quarterly inspections.

To tackle existing oil and gas operations, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will also take part in the action by reviewing the current permit requirements and establishing new standards. The DEP, according to the governor’s press release, will create more effective managerial services, “including leak detection and repair programs.”

Christopher Reed is a PublicSource intern. Reach him at creed@publicsource.org.