WASHINGTON (AP) – The Environmental Protection Agency said it will fly by helicopter to search for methane “super emitters” in the nation’s largest oil and gas producing region.
On Monday, EPA’s Region 6 headquarters in Dallas, Texas issued a press release about a new law enforcement effort in the Permian Basin, saying the flights would occur within the next two weeks.
The announcement came four days after the Associated Press released an investigation that showed 533 oil and gas plants in the region emit excessive amounts of methane and named the most responsible companies. Colorless and odorless, methane is a powerful 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’s history and similar overflights had been made in past years. EPA officials didn’t mention an upcoming Permian law enforcement sweep when they were interviewed by AP last month.
EPA Region 6 Administrator Earthea Nance said the Permian Basin accounts for 40% of our nation’s oil supply and for years has released dangerous amounts of methane and volatile organic compounds, contributing to climate change and poor air quality.
“Overpasses are vital in identifying which facilities are responsible for most of these emissions and thus where reductions are most urgent,” Nance said, according to the agency’s press release.
AP used 2021 data from the Carbon Mapper group to document massive amounts of methane leaking into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations through the Permian, a 250-mile-wide arid expanse of bones along the Texas-New Mexico border that a billion years ago it was the bottom of a shallow sea.
A collaboration between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and academic researchers, Carbon Mapper used an airplane carrying an infrared spectrometer to detect and quantify methane’s unique chemical footprint in the atmosphere. Hundreds of sites were shown constantly vomiting gas through multiple flyovers.
Last October, AP reporters visited more than two dozen sites reported as persistent super methane emitters by Carbon Mapper with a FLIR infrared camera and recorded video of large plumes of methane-containing hydrocarbons leaking from pipeline compressors. battery tanks, torch stacks and other manufacturing facilities. The Carbon Mapper data and the AP camera work show that many of the worst emitters are constantly charging the Earth’s atmosphere with this extra gas.
Carbon Mapper identified the vomiting sites only by their GPS coordinates. The AP then took the coordinates of the 533 “super-issuing” sites and cross-referenced them with state drilling permits, air quality permits, pipeline maps, land records and other public documents to put 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-emission sites have been observed gushing methane with the annual reports 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 emissions rate observed in the Permian.
The methane released by these companies will disrupt the climate for decades, contributing to more heat waves, hurricanes, fires and floods. There is now nearly three times more methane in the air than before the industrial age. The year 2021 saw the worst increase ever.
The EPA recently issued restrictions on the amount of methane that can be released from new oil and gas plants. But the proposed regulations on the hundreds of thousands of older sites responsible for most emissions are still under review. What is limited by current federal regulations are toxic air pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and carcinogenic benzene that often accompany methane and are sometimes called “ridealong” gases.
The EPA said this week that it too will collect data from its aerial observations in the Permian and use GPS locations to identify structures that release excess emissions. The agency said it will take enforcement actions against responsible companies which could include administrative actions and referrals to the Justice Department. The EPA said companies found to have violated federal law could face significant financial penalties, as well as future monitoring to see if corrective action is taken.
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