EPA announces flights to search for methane in the Permian Basin

By MICHAEL BIESECKER and HELEN WIEFFERING
Associated press

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Environmental Protection Agency said it will conduct helicopter overflights to search for methane “super emitters” in the nation’s largest oil and gas producing region.

The EPA’s Region 6 headquarters in Dallas, Texas, issued a news release Monday about a new law enforcement effort in the Permian Basin, saying the thefts would take place within the next two weeks.

The announcement came four days after the Associated Press published a survey that showed 533 oil and gas facilities 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 over a 20-year period than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.

EPA spokesman Tim Carroll said the timing of the agency’s announcement was unrelated to AP history and similar overflights had been conducted in years past. . EPA officials made no mention of an upcoming law enforcement sweep in the Permian when interviewed by the AP last month.

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

“Overflights are key to identifying which facilities are responsible for the bulk 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 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 border. and New Mexico a billion years ago. was the bottom of a shallow sea.

A partnership between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and university researchers, Carbon Mapper used an aircraft carrying an infrared spectrometer to detect and quantify the unique chemical fingerprint of methane in the atmosphere. Hundreds of sites were shown constantly spewing the gas across multiple flybys.

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. . Carbon Mapper data and AP Camera work show that many of the worst emitters are routinely loading Earth’s atmosphere with this additional gas.

Carbon Mapper identified the release sites solely by their GPS coordinates. The AP then took the coordinates of the 533 “super-emitter” sites and cross-referenced them with state drilling permits, air quality permits, pipeline maps, land records and other 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.

AP also compared the estimated rates at which super-emitting sites have been observed spouting methane with the annual reports that companies are required to submit to the EPA detailing their greenhouse gas emissions. AP found that the EPA database often fails to account for the true rate of emissions 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. 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.

The EPA recently enacted restrictions on the amount of methane that can be released from new oil and gas facilities. But proposed regulations on the hundreds of thousands of older sites responsible for most of the emissions are still under consideration. 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 “straddling” gases.

The EPA said this week it would also collect data from its airborne observations in the Permian and use GPS locations to identify facilities releasing excess emissions. The agency said it would take enforcement actions against the companies responsible, which could include administrative enforcement actions and referrals to the Department of Justice. The EPA said companies that violate federal law could face significant financial penalties as well as future monitoring to verify that 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 Investigations team, email investigative@ap.org.