The Permian Basin accounts for twice the average methane emissions of 11 other major U.S. oil and gas production regions in the country, according to a new study based on data collected from a European Space Agency satellite.
The report from scientists at the Environmental Defense Fund, Harvard University, Georgia Tech and the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research published the findings Wednesday in the journal Science Advances after analyzing 11 months of satellite data.
“What this is showing is the scientific validity of what’s being found down there,” said Jon Goldstein, an environmental policy expert with the Environmental Defense Fund.
The Environmental Defense Fund released a separate report earlier in April estimating the oil-rich Permian Basin was leaking three times the national average of methane emissions based on air samples from ground and tower monitors and infrared imaging from aircraft flying over the area.
Despite an anticipated decline in drilling and oil production, the Environmental Defense Fund and other environmental groups have said they fear the COVID-19 crisis could actually result in higher methane emissions because of a temporary policy from the Environmental Protection Agency allowing companies to suspend air monitoring and other environmental compliance on a case-by-case basis.
It is still too early to know whether the slide in oil prices will result in a change in methane emissions, Goldstein said.
The Environmental Defense Fund plans to continue monitoring methane emissions in the Permian. But Goldstein said the study with Harvard underscores what the group had already been advocating for: a comprehensive state-level methane rule aimed at curbing emissions.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has vowed to institute such a rule by the end of the year.
The new Environmental Defense Fund and Harvard study used nearly a year of satellite data showing 200,000 individual readings taken across the Permian Basin by a European Space Agency satellite called TROPOMI from May 2018 to this past March.
“There’s so much methane escaping from Permian oil and gas operations that it nearly triples the 20-year climate impact of burning the gas they’re producing,” report co-author Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. “These findings demonstrate the rapidly growing ability of satellite technology to track emissions like these and to provide the data needed by both companies and regulators to know where emissions reductions are needed.”
But a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, Robert McEntyre, criticized the study, calling it “an exaggeration” and “a departure from common scientific methodologies.”
He continued, “New Mexico’s oil and natural gas producers are committed to reducing methane emissions and have been the leading force in developing, testing and implementing innovative technologies to protect the environment. Unlike [the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association’s] Methane Mitigation Roadmap, this study fails to identify or pinpoint the sources of emissions and has little utility for the men and women of our industry who work 24/7 to limit emissions.”
The Sierra Club also said the study shows the importance of creating a comprehensive state rule to limit methane emissions.
“Permian basin oil and gas operators are saturating the region in the most potent of global warming gases and asthma inflaming pollution,” Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter Director Camilla Feibelman said in a statement. “Companies are doing irreparable harm to our climate and putting New Mexicans’ health at risk.”
The American Lung Association on Tuesday released an air quality scorecard that gave Eddy County, a major oil and gas production region in Southern New Mexico, an F on ozone pollution, Feibelman noted.
On Wednesday, the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department separately released a map of state methane emission data for the first time. The map was created using data collected by the Oil Conservation Division, showing how much companies are venting and flaring methane.
“One of my goals for this department is to have transparent processes and guide our work through science and data,” said Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst in a statement. “The venting and flaring map is another step in the right direction towards both of these goals.”