Study contends methane emissions in the Permian are higher than thought

Study contends methane emissions in the Permian are higher than thought

Methane emissions from the Permian basin of West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, one of the largest oil-producing regions in the world, are more than two times higher than federal estimates, a new study suggests.

“There is going to be a lot less wells being drilled, probably less gas being flared, even wells [that] will [probably] be shut in,” said David Lyon, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund and a co-author of the study. “If that is done properly, then I think you will have less emissions. At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of operators cut back on their environmental staff and they do less leak inspections and other activities that would reduce emissions. They may have less ability to respond to malfunctions and things that cause emissions.”

The current study estimates 3.7 percent of all the methane produced from wells in the Permian basin is emitted, unburned, into the atmosphere. That is more than twice the official EPA estimate for the region.

While the percentage may seem small, methane is a super-pollutant that is approximately 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It is often called a “short-lived climate pollutant” because it lasts only 12 years in the atmosphere when carbon dioxide can last for centuries. Methane’s relatively short life in the atmosphere means that any reduction in methane emissions will have a near-term benefit in helping to slow climate change.

Climate scientists estimate that if just 3.2 percent of all the gas brought above ground at the well leaks into the atmosphere, rather than being burned to generate electricity, natural gas becomes, as a result, worse for the climate than burning coal.

In 2018, Exxon, as part of a coalition of oil and gas producers known as the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, pledged to reduce methane emissions from a 2017 baseline of 0.32 percent to 0.25 percent by 2025. The current study’s basin-wide estimate of a 3.7 percent rate of emissions suggests that, at least in the Permian, Exxon and other producers are well off of their emission reduction targets.

An April 6 report by the Norwegian energy research firm Rystad Energy noted that flaring in the Permian has decreased from a high of nearly 900 million cubic feet per day in the third quarter of 2019 to approximately 700 million cubic feet per day in the first quarter of 2020. The firm projects that flaring will continue to decline by an additional 40 percent this year as an oil production downturn caused by Covid-19 and the ongoing oil price war continues.

Flaring significantly reduces methane’s greenhouse gas impact. When methane is burned, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere instead of methane.  Reductions in flaring are typically an indicator that less methane is being wasted and that more of it is being shipped to market via pipelines.

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