EPA announces flights to search for methane in the Permian Basin

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Environmental Protection Agency says it will conduct helicopter overflights to look for “super emitters” of methane in the country’s biggest oil and gas producing region.

The EPA’s Region 6 headquarters in Dallas, Texas, released a press release about a new enforcement effort in the Permian Basin on Monday, saying flights would take place within the next two weeks.

The announcement came four days after the Associated Press published an investigation 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 the AP’s history and that similar flyovers had been carried out in previous years. EPA officials made no mention of an upcoming enforcement sweep on 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 been releasing dangerous amounts of methane and volatile organic compounds for years, contributing to climate change and poor oil quality. air.

“Overflights are vital in identifying which facilities are responsible for the most of these emissions and therefore where reductions are most urgent,” Nance said, according to the agency’s statement.

The AP used 2021 data from the Carbon Mapper group to document large amounts of methane released into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations throughout the Permian, a 250-mile-wide stretch along the Texas-New Mexico border that has a billion years. it was the bottom of a shallow sea.

A partnership of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and academic researchers, Carbon Mapper used a plane carrying an infrared spectrometer to detect and quantify the unique chemical fingerprint of methane in the atmosphere. Hundreds of locations have been shown persistently spitting out the gas on multiple flybys.

Last October, AP journalists visited more than two dozen sites flagged as persistent super methane emitters by the Carbon Mapper with a FLIR infrared camera and recorded video of large plumes of hydrocarbon gas containing methane escaping from pipeline compressors, tank batteries, chimneys and other production infrastructure. . Carbon Mapper data and AP camera work show that many of the worst emitters are constantly charging Earth’s atmosphere with this extra gas.

Carbon Mapper identified the vomit locations only 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 documents to round up the most likely corporations.

Just 10 companies owned at least 164 of these sites, according to an AP analysis of Carbon Mapper data.

The AP also compared the estimated rates at which super-emitting sites were observed spurting methane with the annual reports that companies are required to submit to the EPA detailing their greenhouse gas emissions. The AP found that the EPA database often does not take into account the true rate of emissions observed in the Permian.

The methane released by these companies will affect the climate for decades, contributing to more heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and floods. There is now nearly three times as much methane in the air as there was before industrial times. The year 2021 saw the worst single increase ever.

The EPA recently enacted restrictions on how much methane can be released from new oil and gas facilities. But proposed regulations for the hundreds of thousands of older sites responsible for most emissions are still under review. What is restricted under current federal regulations are toxic air pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and cancer-causing benzene, which often accompany methane and are sometimes referred to as “walk-in” gases.

The EPA said this week that it would also collect data from its aerial observations of the Permian and use the GPS locations to identify facilities that release excess emissions. The agency said it will initiate enforcement actions against the companies responsible that may 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 see if corrective action was 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 investigation team, email investigative@ap.org.

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