Satellite Data Reveals Extreme Methane Emissions from U.S. Permian Oil & Gas Operations

Findings reveal highest emissions ever measured from a major U.S. oil and gas basin.

Permian Oil Field - Credit Nick Simonite.jpg

The Permian Basin is one of the world’s most prolific oil-producing regions producing 3.5 million barrels of crude and 11 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. Photo: Nick Simonite

A new study published in the journal Science Advances shows that oil and gas operations in America’s sprawling Permian Basin are releasing methane at twice the average rate found in previous studies of 11 other major U.S. oil and gas regions. This is a rate 15 times higher than targets set by global producers.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Man-made methane emissions are responsible for over a quarter of today’s warming. Reducing methane from oil and gas operations is the fastest, most cost-effective way to slow the rate of warming, even as the necessary transition to a net-zero carbon economy continues.

These are the highest emissions ever measured from a major U.S. oil and gas basin.
Dr. Steven Hamburg
Chief Scientist, Environment Defense Fund

 The study used European Space Agency data gathered by the TROPOMI Instrument on the Copernicus Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite and was authored by scientists from Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Harvard University, Georgia Tech, and the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research.

“These are the highest emissions ever measured from a major U.S. oil and gas basin. There’s so much methane escaping from Permian oil and gas operations that it nearly triples the 20-year climate impact of burning the gas they’re producing,” said co-author Dr. Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at EDF.

The researchers estimate a 3.7% methane loss rate from Permian oil and gas operations. The wasted methane – which is the main component in natural gas – is enough to supply energy to 2 million U.S. households each year. The results are based on 11 months of satellite data encompassing 200,000 individual readings taken across the 160,000 square-kilometer from May 2018 to March 2019.

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Infrared cameras show methane (black plume) escaping a pumpjack in the Permian Basin.

“This EDF study confirms that methane mitigation must be a part of any energy transition strategy,” said Manfredi Caltagirone who leads the methane work at the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Energy and Climate Branch.  “Although more of these sorts of studies will help us better understand where and to what extent methane emissions occur in the oil and gas value chain, governments and industry have enough information to reduce emissions of this powerful greenhouse gas now.”

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Mineral Methane Initiative is working to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 60-75% by 2030. The initiative – implemented by UNEP in collaboration with EDF, the European Commission, Nigeria, and the UK – brings together governments, industry, research institutions and civil society partners to work collaboratively on transparency, science, and policy activities to accelerate ambitious methane emissions reductions.

Its Methane Science Studies is examining sites around the world to address a critical lack of global methane measurement data in the oil and gas sector to help prioritise company actions and government policies for reducing methane emissions from the sector. It recently released its first two studies, which looked at emissions from offshore oil and gas in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. An aerial survey showed that methane emissions from offshore operations are emitting twice as much methane than previously thought, and a ship based survey found that the top 2 percent of sites were responsible for 20 percent of emissions.   

The oil and gas sector is responsible for an appreciable amount of anthropogenic methane emissions, and is the sector with the greatest potential for cost-effective reductions
Mark Radka
Head, Energy and Climate Branch, UNEP

“The oil and gas sector is responsible for an appreciable amount of anthropogenic methane emissions, and is the sector with the greatest potential for cost-effective reductions,” said Mark Radka, head of UNEP’s Energy and Climate Branch. “Taking action is not only technically feasible, but because methane has commercial value, reducing these emissions can result in financial savings or be carried out at low cost. We are willing to work with countries and companies to make this happen”

Helena Molin Valdés, head of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat said the findings meant countries need to do more to stop emissions in the sector or rethink natural gas’s role as a transition fuel as they move to decarbonize their economies.

“The amount of gas being leaked in the Permian Basin erases the climate benefit natural gas has to offer,” Ms. Molin Valdés said. “We need industry and governments to work together to prevent leaks at all stages of production and where possible capture gas instead of flaring or venting. If not, natural gas can’t be considered safer for the climate than other fossil fuels.”

Methane emissions from oil and gas wells in the Permian Basin, USA

Methane emissions from oil and gas wells in the Permian Basin, USA
This footage from the Environment Defense Fund uses special infrared cameras to show methane emissions from flaring, venting, and leaks, from oil and gas wells in the Permian Basin.

Findings highlight crucial new applications

Satellites offer an important new methane measurement tool that can cover large areas faster and more frequently than conventional methods. They can also provide data on gas producing regions around the world that are impossible to reach by aircraft or from the ground.

“Advances in satellite technology and data analytics are making it possible to generate regular and robust information on methane emissions from oil and gas operations even from the most remote corners of the world,” said Mark Brownstein, EDF senior vice president for Energy. “It’s our goal to use this new data to help companies and countries find, measure, and reduce methane emissions further and faster, and enable the public to both track and compare progress.”

Launched in 2017, the TROPOMI instrument used in the study offers more precise measurements, higher resolution and better coverage than its forerunners. It is part of an emerging ecosystem of methane-tracking satellites with a growing range of capabilities, including one with even higher precision currently being developed by EDF subsidiary MethaneSAT LLC for launch in 2022. MethaneSAT will track oil and gas methane around the globe on a near-weekly basis, identifying and measuring smaller emission events and more widely dispersed sources not discernable with current technology.

Permian emissions challenge

The Permian Basin has emerged as one of the world’s most prolific oil-producing regions in recent years, producing 3.5 million barrels of crude and 11 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day (about 30% and 10% of the respective U.S. totals in 2018).

Thenew study validates a set of ground-based and airborne measurements released two weeks ago by EDF’s PermianMAP initiative, which found methane escaping from oil and gas operations in the most productive part of the basin with a loss rate of 3.5%. That project is currently collecting a year’s worth of methane data across a 10,000 square-kilometer study area in the Permian Basin using fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, towers, and ground-based mobile sensors. 

High leakage rates in the Permian imply the opportunity to greatly reduce methane emissions in this sprawling oil and gas producing region, through better infrastructure design and development, more effective operations and better regulation at both the state and federal levels.

The TROPOMI study uses the latest technology and methods available to analyze and present data, a process that currently takes a great deal of time and effort. But researchers are quickly learning how to automate and accelerate these complex calculations. The MethaneSAT project, for example, is expected to deliver data based on weekly measurements in near-real time.

“Early TROPOMI images showed that the Permian was one of the largest methane hotspots in the U.S. But the satellite was new, and data analysis hadn’t even started. Quantifying emissions and deriving a leak rate for a huge area was a big, hands-on effort, even with the best tools,” said EDF’s Dr. Ritesh Gautam, one of the study’s lead researchers. “Studies like this are expanding those boundaries. MethaneSAT and missions that follow will be more capable, delivering more data much faster, in ways that are more actionable by stakeholders.”

More information can be found on EDF’s website here.

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