EPA announces flights to search for methane in the Permian Basin

EPA announces flights to search for methane in the Permian Basin

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Environmental Protection Agency says it will conduct helicopter flyovers to look for “superemitters” of methane in the country’s largest oil and gas producing region.

The EPA’s Region 6 headquarters in Dallas, Texas, issued a press release on Monday about new enforcement actions in the Permian Basin, saying the flights would take place within the next two weeks.

The announcement came four days after The Associated Press published an investigation showing 533 oil and gas assets in the region are emitting excessive amounts of methane and named the companies most responsible. Colorless and odorless, methane is a potent greenhouse gas that traps 83 times more heat in the atmosphere than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

EPA spokesman Tim Carroll said the timing of the agency’s announcement was unrelated to AP’s history and that similar overflights had been conducted in previous years. EPA officials did not mention any upcoming enforcement action in the Permian during an interview with the AP last month.

EPA Region 6 Administrator Earthea Nance said the Permian Basin accounts for 40 percent of our country’s oil supply and has been releasing dangerous levels of methane and volatile organic compounds for years, contributing to climate change and poor air quality.

“The transitions are critical to determining which assets are responsible for the majority of these emissions and therefore where reductions are most urgently needed,” Nance said, according to the agency’s press release.

AP used 2021 data from the Carbon Mapper group to document vast amounts of methane produced a billion years ago from oil and gas exploration in the Permian, a 250-mile-wide, bone-dry expanse along the Texas-New Mexico border, in the atmosphere escaped was the bottom of a shallow sea.

Carbon Mapper, a partnership of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and academic researchers, used an aircraft with an infrared spectrometer to detect and quantify the unique chemical fingerprint of methane in the atmosphere. Hundreds of sites were shown to spew the gas persistently over multiple overflights.

Last October, AP journalists visited more than two dozen sites identified as persistent methane super-emitters by Carbon Mapper using a FLIR infrared camera and captured video of large methane-bearing hydrocarbon gas plumes emanating from pipeline compressors, tank batteries, flares and escape from other production infrastructure. The AP’s Carbon Mapper data and camerawork show that many of the worst emitters are constantly adding this extra gas to Earth’s atmosphere.

Carbon Mapper identified the spitting sites using only their GPS coordinates. The AP then took the coordinates of the 533 “super-emitting” sites and compared them to state drilling permits, air quality permits, pipeline maps, land registers, and other public documents to piece together the companies most likely responsible.

According to an AP analysis of Carbon Mapper’s data, only 10 companies owned at least 164 of these sites.

AP also compared the estimated rates at which the super-emission sites were observed venting methane to the annual reports that companies are required to submit to the EPA detailing their greenhouse gas emissions. AP noted that the EPA database often does not account for the true emission rate observed in the Permian.

The methane released by these companies will disrupt the climate for decades, contributing to more heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and floods. Today there is almost three times as much methane in the air as before the industrial era. The year 2021 brought the worst single rise ever.

The EPA recently imposed limits on how much methane can be released from new oil and gas facilities. However, proposed regulations for the hundreds of thousands of older sites responsible for the majority of emissions are still under review. What is restricted under current federal regulations are toxic air pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and carcinogenic benzene, which often accompany methane and are sometimes referred to as “ridealong” gases.

The EPA said this week it would also collect data from its Permian aerial observations and use the GPS locations to identify the facilities releasing excessive emissions. The agency said it will take enforcement action against the companies responsible, which could include administrative enforcement actions and referrals to the Department of Justice. The EPA said companies violating federal laws could face significant fines, as well as future surveillance to verify corrective action has been taken.

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Follow AP investigative reporters Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck and Helen Wieffering at twitter.com/helenwieffering. To contact the AP investigative team, email investigative@ap.org.

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