The global warming effect of record production in the Permian Basin, the world’s largest oilfield, has drawn scrutiny as methane leaks into the atmosphere from its oil and gas operations.
The region’s emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, have returned to the spotlight as production rebounds to match the surge in oil prices from the depths of the 2020 crash.
New research has found that big sources of these emissions can be traced to a small handful of leaky pipes, wells and factories. Just 30 facilities across the Permian account for about 100,000 tons of methane emissions each year, according to aerial data collected by the Environmental Defense Fund and Carbon Mapper.
That’s roughly equivalent to the short-term pollution of half a million cars, or about 1% of all methane emissions from the oil and gas sector in the United States, according to figures from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Tackling methane emissions is considered key to limiting global warming, as it has 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. A UN report last year identified cutting methane emissions as the fastest way to slow global warming.
The main sources of man-made methane were agriculture and landfills, while fossil fuel extraction produced about a third of the pollution, according to the report.
“Mitigation of methane emissions is now the biggest down payment we can make to minimize the impacts of climate change,” said Riley Duren, Carbon Mapper’s managing director and researcher at the University of Arizona.
“And the oil and gas sector is the sector most ready for action: it’s all the human infrastructure and most of the technologies needed to mitigate emissions are well understood.”
The Permian Basin covers an area the size of Great Britain and straddles western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. It represents two out of every five barrels of oil pumped in the United States.
Production plummeted following the 2020 oil price crash, but the oilfield is now pumping more oil than at any point in its history. In February, it will produce more than 5 million barrels of oil for the first time, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
The prolific nature of the Permian makes it a key contributor to global methane emissions. According to a recent scientific paper, approximately 2.7 million tonnes are released into the atmosphere each year through leaks in pipes, wells and treatment plants across the basin, as well as intentional flaring of excess of natural gas.
Efforts to tackle methane pollution have been central to Joe Biden’s climate agenda. His administration reinstated rules on plugging leaks at new oil and gas facilities that were abandoned by Donald Trump. New regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency would also crack down on leaks from existing facilities.
US climate envoy John Kerry this week hosted a gathering of ministers from more than 20 countries who also discussed national plans on how to cut methane emissions. More than 100 countries agreed at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow to cut methane emissions by 30% by the end of the decade compared to 2020 levels.
The methane crackdown has been widely supported by most of the major Permian state oil producers, which have come under increasing pressure from shareholders over their environmental credentials. But they are under pressure to keep their promises.
“There is a very wide range of investments made by companies to mitigate emissions,” said David Lyon, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “[But] I don’t know if I would say one company is doing enough.
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