Methane Emissions Data: Regulations Needed To Stop Atmosphere Warming In Permian Basin

Originally published on Forbes.com on February 26, 2021

In New Mexico, emissions from the oil and gas industry were 53% of state greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. This makes reducing emissions, mostly methane, the highest priority for the state. Governor Lujan Grisham has set a goal to reduce by 45% methane emissions between 2005 and 2030.

Several years ago, a plume of methane was discovered by satellite hanging over the town of Farmington, northwest New Mexico, the population center of the San Juan basin, one of the biggest gas producing basins in the USA. See Figure 1.

A larger plume now hovers over the Delaware basin, in southeast New Mexico. Not surprisingly, oil and gas emissions are the largest source of climate pollution in the state.

This is Part 3 of a series on the Delaware basin, the premier oil and gas basin in the USA. An earlier piece, Part 1, was about what a resounding success the basin has been in production of oil and gas, and how this has boosted the coffers of the state – providing about 40% of the general revenue in recent years.

Part 2 focused on flaring of gas, which is a waste of money and harmful to the upper atmosphere. Ways to reduce flaring of gas were discussed. In general, flaring (30%) is important, but methane leakage (70%) is more serious, partly because the latter leakages are unburned which means the gas has 21 times more atmospheric warming effect than flared gas that is usually burned to form CO2.

A new report from EDF (Environmental Defense Fund) has appeared that updates the flaring issue in the Permian basin. In four different surveys, 5% of flares were unlit and making outsized contributions to atmospheric warming. Another 5% were incompletely lit and adding excess contributions. These results confirm the inability of operators to properly deal with flaring.

Figure 1. Methane emissions from Delaware basin, bottom right, and San Juan basin, top left. Source: EDF

Figure 1. Methane emissions from Delaware basin, bottom right, and San Juan basin, top left. Source: EDF

The state of methane emissions in New Mexico.

EDF has measured methane emissions across New Mexico by satellite which is coordinated with ground-based detectors. The following information is from their report updated in November 2020:

  • Methane emissions across New Mexico tally over 1.1 million metric tons per year – equivalent to global warming caused by burning fuel in 21 million cars and trucks for a year.
  • Poor management of methane leaks and dubious flaring practices were at fault, especially in the Delaware basin.
  • $271 million worth of natural gas is wasted every year in New Mexico by leaks and venting and flaring.
  • Each year $43 million is lost to New Mexico in state tax and royalty revenue.
  • New Mexico’s Environment Department (NMED) and Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) have proposed solutions to reduce methane emissions, but EDF claim the NMED rules are too lax and will exempt too many wells from the regulation.
  • Instead, EDF says almost 60% of methane emissions could be eliminated if New Mexico adopted procedures that have proven successful in other oil-gas fields in the USA.
Figure 2. Methane plume from leak in storage tank, almost 1 km long, detected by infrared in aircraft. Source: PNAS

Figure 2. Methane plume from leak in storage tank, almost 1 km long, detected by infrared in aircraft. Source: PNAS

New results from flyover measurements.

NMED, working with the United States EPA, used infrared (FLIR) technology in helicopter flyovers of the Delaware and San Juan Basins to measure methane from oil and gas operations. With this technology one can see with the naked eye the plumes of these emissions (Figure 2).

Here is a summary of the flyover results in a press release:

  • The leakage rates from oil and gas equipment were higher than anticipated in both basins.
  • 5.5% of 9,100 storage tanks (505) were leaking methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Out of 1,400 wells that were being flared, 58 were unlit and therefore emitting almost pure methane to the atmosphere (recall methane has 21 times more warming effect than burned methane which is essentially CO2).
  • The Delaware Basin’s overall leakage rate was 5%, which is high, and much greater than a 2% leakage rate measured during 2019 flyovers of the same area.
  • In the San Juan Basin, the leak rate was approximately 3% but there were no measurements by flyovers in 2019 to compare with this.

These flyover results are consistent with EDF measurements, according to Jon Goldstein, Director, Regulatory & Legislative Affairs, EDF, which provides an independent verification. However, previous (non-flyover) EPA results were usually much lower than EDF results, partly because EPA used leakage modeling calculations that were outdated. Additionally, well leakages at the small end of the range were not even reported. 

At this point the press release touches on politics. “The disappointing findings come after 18 months of intensive and ongoing stakeholder discussions with the oil and natural gas industry on reducing methane and VOC emissions.” Apparently, some operators had promised voluntary cutbacks but it wasn’t enough to solve the problem.

The situation is further complicated by regulatory assignments. EMNRD is responsible for rules that curb venting and flaring, while NMED is required to control air pollution from oil and gas sources such as leaks that contribute volatile organic compounds or VOCs. They have to work together because venting, flaring and leaks (leaks are the single largest source of oil and gas methane pollution) must all be addressed, and methane waste and VOCs emissions come out of the same wells at the same time.

New Mexico’s new rules.

EMNRD has proposed a rule that by the end of 2026 will capture 98% of venting and flaring  emissions from oil and gas operations – meaning venting and flaring rates will be 2%. According to Goldstein, the Oil Conservation Commission deliberated on these rules recently and a final version is expected from the commission in March. They are looking very good and in their current form would end the wasteful practice of routine venting and flaring in New Mexico in line with Governor Lujan Grisham’s goal of implementing a nationally leading rule.

But, in draft form, proposed regulations from NMED would exempt from regulation 95% of wells across the state and therefore reduce only 20.6% of methane and 19.2% of VOCs from oil and gas, Goldstein noted.

So the draft rules for venting and flaring parts of GHG emissions are looking good. But the draft rules for other methane leakages in wells, pipelines and other facilities need to be tightened, according to Goldstein of EDF. This is important because methane leakages such as these account for the largest portion of GHG from oil and gas operations in the state.

Other solutions to the gas leakage problem.

Pioneer Natural Resources, active in the Texas side of the Permian basin, have committed to some important goals. They will lower methane emissions 40% by 2040 and flaring to 1% of total gas production. 1% is about the same as the national average for flaring, but some areas of Pioneer have been above 5%. Pioneer will also reduce GHG emissions 25% by 2040.

To wrap up, it has become clear that the oil and gas industry, upstream and downstream, is a major source of methane which is a deadly greenhouse gas. Conversely, reducing leaks and venting and flaring of methane can have a quick and powerful effect on the transition to a low-carbon economy. 

A statement by Ben Ratner, Senior Director, EDF+Business, challenges oil and gas companies to take a firm stand on the subject:

“We encourage companies to demonstrate leadership by offering the data, experience and solutions to support ambitious policy responses that take advantage of emerging technologies and practices to cut emissions dramatically and pragmatically.”

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