Three years of independent airborne surveys reveal near-term opportunities to meet domestic and international methane reduction targets

By Ramona du Houx

February 14, 2022

Last month, Carbon Mapper and Environmental Defense Fund released insights generated from three years of airborne surveys, conducted between 2019 and 2021, using advanced remote sensing technology to pinpoint, quantify, and track methane emissions from oil and gas production facilities in the Permian Basin across Texas and New Mexico. The Permian Basin is a large sedimentary basin in the southwest, containing the Mid-Continent Oil Field province in western Texas and southeastern New Mexico.

The Permian Basin is almost unique in that it has so many oil and gas producing rock formations stacked one on top of each other, called multiple stacked plays, each of which is more than a thousand feet thick, ranging in depths from a few hundred feet to five miles below the surface (see figure from Tarka). The abundance of oil and gas riches often comes with greed and careless development and monitoring.

The data reveals that about 30 facilities — including pipelines, well pads, compressor stations and processing facilities —persistently emitted large volumes of methane over multiple years, and that repairing those leaks could immediately reduce 100,000 metric tons of methane per year. These 30 facilities make up less than .001 percent of the region’s oil and gas infrastructure, and yet they produce the same near-term climate pollution as about half a million passenger vehicles. The mitigation of these 30 super-emitters would prevent $26 million a year in wasted gas.

Cutting methane, a super-potent greenhouse gas with vastly greater near-term warming potential than CO2, has become a heightened priority domestically and internationally given the urgency of the climate crisis. Recently, the U.S. and more than 100 other countries signed the Global Methane Pledge to cut methane 30 percent by 2030. 

“In this decisive decade for reducing greenhouse gas emissions every molecule matters, and the fact that some facilities are persistently leaking methane for years without detection or repair highlights the urgent need for comprehensive and transparent methane monitoring,” said Riley Duren, Chief Executive Officer for Carbon Mapper and Research Scientist at the University of Arizona. “The magnitude of emissions coming from a handful of methane sources in one of the top oil- and gas-producing regions illustrates the opportunity to make significant near-term progress toward the stated methane reduction goals of the U.S., other countries, and companies around the world.” 

Pumpjacks operate on oil wells in the Permian Basin in this aerial photograph taken over Crane, Texas, on March 2, 2018.CREDIT: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Solving the Problem

Cumulatively, the Carbon Mapper research team detected nearly 1,100 super emitters across the Permian Basin over the course of their research which was performed as part of a joint NASA, RMI, and University of Arizona research program and EDF’s PermianMAP initiative. These facilities ultimately contribute to about half of the basin’s total methane emissions. While leaks at these facilities are very large, most are shorter in duration and underscore the need for frequent monitoring of all facilities basin-wide to pinpoint and mitigate as many super emitting sites as possible.

Rules being advanced by the Environmental Protection Agency and New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) have the potential to address oil and gas pollution by requiring regular monitoring at most processing facilities and production sites —including at smaller, leak-prone wells.

The New Mexico Environment Department rules will be finalized in March.

“With progressive methane emission reduction rules New Mexico is one step closer to protecting public health and our precious yet fragile environment state wide,” said Debbie Sariñana NM Representative House District 21, Air Force Veteran, Elected Officials to Protect America National Leadership Council Co-chair.

Comprehensive EPA rules represent the Biden administration’s biggest and most immediate opportunity to achieve significant pollution reductions across the Permian region as well as its commitments under the global methane pledge.

“It takes a combination of ground-based inspections and frequent advanced screening, such as aerial monitoring, to effectively find and fix these recurring sources of methane emissions,” said David Lyon, senior scientist at Environmental Defense Fund. “We know methane can be emitted across a wide range of infrastructure and can be cost-effectively reduced with a combination of strong regulations and available technologies.”

The PIPES Act of 2020 expanded PHMSA’s responsibility to protect the environment and specifically called for enhanced oversight of gathering lines. PHMSA issued a new rule to expand leak survey requirements to an additional 20,336 miles of gathering lines, set to take effect in May 2022 – but industry groups oppose that requirement and are seeking reconsideration of the rule.   

“PHMSA must continue to improve oversight of gathering lines and require the use of advance methane monitoring to find and fix pipeline leaks,” said Erin Murphy, EDF Senior Attorney for Energy Markets and Utility Regulation. “In fact, reports show there are more commercially available solutions for controlling pipeline emissions today than ever before.”

About the Data Collection

The data was collected by flights funded by NASA, the University of Arizona, RMI, and EDF using Arizona State University’s Global Airborne Observatory and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Next Generation Airborne Visible Infrared Imaging Spectrometer. 

Data and imagery from Carbon Mapper’s airborne surveys in the Permian Basin are available online through PermianMAP and Carbon Mapper’s Data Portal. The two organizations are also working with partners to launch a new generation of satellites—MethaneSAT and the Carbon Mapper constellation—that will expand methane monitoring globally starting in 2023. Both organizations are committed to providing transparent, third-party data on emissions to companies, officials, and regulators so they can take swift, science-based action to mitigate methane.