Are snowballs no longer melting in Hades? How else to explain the fact that nine natural gas drilling firms that are actively engaged in hydraulic fracturing – i.e. “fracking” – joined with the University of Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund to conduct an independent, peer-reviewed study of this contentious environmental issue? It’s true, and the study’s results were published this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Fracking is the injection of massive amounts of water and a small amount of chemicals into shale rock formations thousands of feet below the water table. Breaking the formations enables recovery of billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas that were previously unreachable. U.S. energy production is at the highest levels in decades largely because of fracking.

So why should anybody outside of the energy industry or environmental movements care about the study results? Because allegations of dangerously high levels of methane escaping into the atmosphere — “fugitive methane” — are frequently heard from fracking critics who are determined to stop its use in the U.S. and elsewhere. Here’s how the study authors described the significance of the study’s findings in the PNAS:

“This work reports direct measurements of methane emissions at 190 onshore natural gas sites in the United States. The measurements indicate that well-completion emissions are lower than previously estimated; the data also show emissions from pneumatic controllers and equipment leaks are higher than Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) national emission projections.

“Estimates of total emissions are similar to the most recent EPA national inventory of methane emissions from natural gas production. These measurements will help inform policymakers, researchers, and industry, providing information about some of the sources of methane emissions from the production of natural gas, and will better inform and advance national and international scientific and policy discussions with respect to natural gas development and use.”

In other words, the study found overall methane emissions at the 190 wells examined — out of 2,000 wells in the U.S. — are in line with what the Environmental Protection Agency defines as safe, contrary to the alarmist claims of many fracking critics. It’s not a definitive finding, but it is a big step forward in understanding the facts about fracking. The Environmental Defense Fund deserves praise for having the intellectual and political courage to participate in this study and stand by the results, and should be prepared for intense criticism from individuals and groups that would normally be allies.

A taste of such criticism came from a group known as Physicians, Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, which blasted the study as “fatally flawed” by the mere participation of the nine energy firms. In fact, as EDF points out on its web site, “scientific experts from academic and other institutions served as external advisers and reviewed the procedures, results and conclusions” as the study progressed. Perhaps most importantly, the study’s datasets are publicly available for independent evaluation.