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Texas Oil Basin May Be Leaking Much More Methane Than Previously Thought, Findings Show

More than one in 10 flares designed to burn off unused methane in the Permian oil and gas basin in Texas and New Mexico could be unlit or malfunctioning, venting much more of the potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than previously thought, new findings by the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) show.

Based on data it collected by flying specially equipped helicopters above hundreds of flaring sites, EDF estimated that methane leaks from flaring inside the Permian account for some 300,000 metric tons per year, around 65% of which may be from unlit flares. That is more than three times the 80,000-90,000 metric tons of methane that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assumes leaks annually from oil and gas operations in the Permian, EDF says.

“What EDF is saying — and many others have been saying for some time — is that the flares often go out: they are not burning anything at all,” said Robert Howarth, a professor at Cornell University who was not involved in the project.

“The emissions are much, much greater than the EPA has assumed,” he said.

Flaring is a common practice at oil and gas facilities. When not all of the gas that surfaces during oil or gas extraction can be used, it is burnt off in fiery plumes or “flares” so that the energy can be released as carbon dioxide, a gas with less warming potential. But high winds and other technical challenges can make flares go out, and because methane is invisible and odorless, it’s not easy to spot it when they do. 

Overall, the leaked methane from flaring could be equal to 10% of the overall methane emissions from oil and gas operations inside the Permian, the biggest oil-producing region in the US with some four million barrels per day in output.

“Unlit or partially combusting flares are a potential source of methane that we must find better ways to track,” said Jessika Trancik, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There’s no question that this is important.” 

Reached for comment, Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA), emphasized the industry’s keenness to find ways to improve environmental performance. “This includes numerous efforts to minimize methane emissions and flaring, including the Texas Methane & Flaring Coalition that was announced just last month,” he said.

Methane is more than 30 times as effective at trapping heat inside the earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide. So damaging are its emissions that, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), reducing them by 40% would cause a slowdown in warming equivalent to taking 60% of the world’s coal-fired power stations offline. 

In the US, methane emissions from oil and gas operations accounted for around 28% percent of the total in 2018, behind agriculture’s 38% share, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But industrial methane emissions are arguably the easiest to clean up, given that oil and gas companies have strong incentives to do so. The industry forgoes around $30 billion per year in lost revenue from leaked methane, according to the IEA. 

EDF’s findings draw attention to how flaring is monitored. The EPA relies on oil and gas facilities themselves to report annually how well flares are performing, storing that data in its GHG Reporting Program. It doesn’t keep general assumptions about what fraction of flares are properly functioning at a given time. 

For the most recent year of data available, 2018, the GHG Reporting Program received a number of reports where oil and gas flares in the Permian Basin were unlit for at least a portion of the year. Protocol requires the EPA to check the data the companies submit at several points, but not to re-check data based on separate measurements at the flare source. 

Despite lower carbon emissions this year, methane emissions could rise 

Around the world, methane emissions from all sources account for 16% of global greenhouse gas emissions, a distant second to carbon dioxide’s 76%, according to 2015 data.

But that could soon change. Even as carbon emissions worldwide are falling because of the COVID-19 pandemic — oil demand alone has plunged from 100 million barrels a day to just 91 million barrels a day — scientists warn that methane emissions could actually increase. Hunting down leaks is costly, and with prices of oil and gas plumbing record lows, the incentive to dispatch maintenance crews to make those fixes may have ebbed. 

“A drop in methane emissions from oil and gas cannot be taken for granted, even if oil and gas consumption falls,” the IEA  says. “A decline in revenues from oil and gas operations could mean that companies pay less attention to efforts to tackle methane emissions. Low natural gas prices may lead to increases in flaring or venting, and regulatory oversight of oil and gas operations could be scaled back.”

A technology-fueled wave of discoveries

EDF’s finding that 1 in 10 flares may be unlit or malfunctioning is part of its Permian Methane Analysis Project (PermianMAP), an effort to produce better data on the Permian Basin. To collect the data, EDF first identified some recent flaring sites in the Permian based on data from heat sensors aboard the NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. EDF then provided the data to the leak detection company Leak Surveys Incorporated (LSI), which flew a helicopter above each site to capture infrared footage. 

In the first of its two surveys, LSI found that 11% of 312 active flares had issues that could cause abnormally high methane emissions, including 7% that were lit but had combustion issues, while 4% were unlit and venting. In the second survey, results were similar: 12% of flares had issues. 

New technologies made PermianMAP’s findings possible. Aerial measurement tools hitched aboard drones or planes have replaced slow and cumbersome hand-held devices. And only in recent months, methane detectors strapped onto satellites have started delivering reams of new data.

Some of that data has led to major discoveries about the scale of methane emissions. In October a Canadian company called GHGSat spotted an enormous methane leak coming from an oil and gas facility in western Turkmenistan. In December, a Dutch-American team of scientists discovered that a little-known accident at a gas well in Ohio in February and March 2018 may in fact have been one of the largest methane leaks ever recorded in the US. And in January the data analytics firm Kayrros identified methane plumes at three different oil and gas facilities in Algeria equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions of a medium-sized coal-fired power plant. 

“We can only expect more and more findings on methane emitters, more frequently and at a resolution that will pinpoint the emitting source down to a single oil and gas well and the company which operates it,” said Yotam Ariel, CEO of Bluefield Technologies, which uses backpack-sized satellites carrying optical sensors. 

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