Hidden threat: Massive methane leaks are accelerating climate change

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LENORAH, Texas – To the naked eye, the Mako Compressor Station outside the dusty crossroads of Lenorah, West Texas, looks unremarkable, akin to tens of thousands of oil and gas operations scattered across the oil-rich Permian Basin.

What isn’t visible through the chain-link fence is the plume of unseen gas, mostly methane, escaping from the stark white storage tanks into the cloudless blue sky.

The Mako station, owned by a subsidiary of West Texas Gas Inc., has been observed releasing about 870 kilograms of methane – an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere every hour. This is equivalent to burning seven tanker trucks full of gasoline every day.

But Mako’s outsized emissions are not illegal, or even regulated. And it was just one of 533 methane “super emitters” detected in an aerial survey of the Permian in 2021 conducted by Carbon Mapper, a partnership of university researchers and NASA.

The group has documented massive amounts of methane released into the atmosphere by oil and gas operations across the Permian, a 250-mile-wide dry expanse along the Texas-New Mexico border. Hundreds of these sites have been seen spewing gas over and over again. Continuous leaks, spurts, not repaired.

“We see the same active sites year after year. It’s not just month to month or season to season,” said Riley Duren, a researcher at the University of Arizona who leads Carbon Mapper.

The earth-warming power of methane is about 83 times stronger over 20 years than the carbon dioxide that comes from car exhaust pipes and power plant chimneys. Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency have largely failed to regulate invisible gas. That leaves it up to oil and gas producers — in some cases, the very companies fighting regulations — to curb methane emissions on their own.

The Associated Press took the coordinates of the 533 “super-emitter” sites identified by Carbon Mapper and cross-referenced the locations with public records to piece together the companies most likely responsible.

Only 10 companies owned at least 164 of those sites, according to an AP analysis of Carbon Mapper data. West Texas Gas owned 11.

The methane released by these companies will disrupt the climate for decades, contributing to more heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and floods. There is now almost three times more methane in the air than before the industrial era. The year 2021 has seen the worst increase ever.

Last October, AP reporters visited more than two dozen sites flagged as super persistent methane emitters by Carbon Mapper with a FLIR infrared camera and recorded video of large plumes of hydrocarbon gas containing methane erupting. from pipeline compressors, tank batteries, flares and other production infrastructure. .

In addition to West Texas Gas’ Mako site, AP observed a large plume of gas seeping from the reservoirs of a WTG compressor station about 15 miles away in the Sale Ranch oilfield. Carbon Mapper estimated emissions from this site to average about 410 pounds of methane per hour.

In a statement, Midland-based West Texas Gas said it regularly conducts its own overflights with gas detection equipment and that in the past six months it had “repaired or improved” nine of the super sites. transmitters AP had asked about, including Mako. The company was “actively reaching out” to another site, although it declined to provide details. WTG said it inspected the last site and found no leaks.

AP found that Targa Resources, a Houston-based natural gas storage, processing and distribution company, was the closest operator to 30 sites that were emitting a total of 3,000 kilograms of methane per hour. Targa did not respond to a detailed list of questions from the AP.

“Reducing air emissions from the petroleum and natural gas sector is a top priority for the administration and for EPA,” said Tomás Carbonell, EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator for Stationary Sources. Methane, he added, “is helping to generate impacts that communities across the country are already seeing every day, including heat waves and wildfires and rising sea levels.”

But proposed rules to tackle emissions from most oil and gas sites are still under consideration and, if implemented, will likely face legal challenges.

To track emissions, the US government maintains an inventory of methane released into the atmosphere. These numbers are used by policy makers and scientists to help calculate global warming.

AP found that the government database often does not account for the true rate of emissions seen in the Permian.

For example, Devon Energy reported releasing methane equivalent to 42,000 metric tons of CO2 for one year of operation in the Permian Basin. AP’s analysis, using the detected emissions, shows that they would emit as many in just 46 days.

A Devon spokesperson said the company is committed to reducing methane emissions and being transparent about its progress.

The EPA could not provide the AP with a single example of a polluter being fined or cited for failing to report or underreporting its emissions.

At an international climate summit in November, the United States and more than 100 other countries signed a Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. To meet this deadline, the US oil and gas industry should reduce emissions. at a rate far beyond anything seen today.

The industry says it is working towards this goal.

“Being able to capture more methane emissions makes business sense,” said Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group. “This is the product we ultimately want to bring to market.”

But climate scientists and environmentalists warn that the industry’s extra efforts are nowhere near enough to avoid disastrous consequences for humanity.

“Methane is responsible for 25% of current global warming, and we cannot limit future warming to 2 degrees Celsius unless we dramatically reduce these emissions,” said Ilissa Ocko, senior climatologist at the Environmental Defense Fund, a group who advocates for climate action. “We have the tools to halve methane and the sooner we do it, the better off our climate and our communities will be.”

Associated Press data reporter Nicky Forster contributed from New York.

Follow AP investigative reporters Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck and Helen Wieffering at twitter.com/helenwieffering

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