First-of-its-kind effort will provide timely, transparent data to spotlight oil and gas methane reduction opportunities, help curtail regional air and climate pollution
A comprehensive new data initiative organized by Environmental Defense Fund will use advanced emissions monitoring technologies to determine how much methane is escaping from the Permian Basin, one of the world’s largest oil and gas producing regions. The coordinated year-long research effort will generate scientifically robust emissions data to map and measure the scale of the problem, and facilitate better, faster solutions.
More than half of U.S. oil rigs are now in the Permian Basin. As production grows in the region, so do associated emissions and pollution. This brings a host of challenges to the community, not least of which is the toll on the environment.Tower monitors deployed at fixed locations, combined with mobile readings taken both on the ground and in the air, will fill urgent gaps in the public understanding of emissions. EDF-led science will incorporate remote sensing and satellite data sets collected by other researchers in order to achieve the most robust measurements possible.
“The data gathered here will better define the scope of the methane problem in the Permian and provide much-needed information so that companies, public officials and local communities can better manage emissions,” said Matt Watson, Vice President Energy at EDF, which is convening a team of leading research institutions and technology providers for the initiative.
The project is designed to estimate methane emission rates from basin-wide oil and gas production. Data will be published on a public platform on an ongoing basis, accompanied by trend analyses. Field measurements are scheduled to begin in November, and the first data release is targeted for early 2020.
Building on established science
The Permian basin, spanning over 86,000 square miles of West Texas and Southeastern New Mexico, is the hottest oil and gas play in the world, but much about methane emissions in the Permian remains a mystery. Nearly five million barrels of oil is produced each day in the basin, yet the majority of methane emissions go unmeasured, unregulated and unmitigated.
Researchers have also shown that nationwide methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are at least 60% higher than the EPA estimates.
Satellite data has identified significant methane hotspots in the Permian, as well as the burning of excess methane in a process known as flaring. Flaring wastes valuable natural gas, while unlit and malfunctioning flares can be major methane emitters. At least one recent study suggests the volume of methane vented or flared in the Permian has tripled in the past two years.
The Permian data project will use cutting-edge remote sensing technologies and emissions quantifications algorithms — such as those demonstrated to map methane emissions in a ground-breaking partnership between EDF and Google Earth Outreach — to build a comprehensive database of emissions information.
“This project will combine multiple layers and multiple kinds of measurement to create the fullest, most accurate picture possible,” said Dr. Eric Kort of the University of Michigan. Dr. Kort, along with Dr. Mary Kang of McGill University and Dr. Adam Brandt of Stanford University, act as independent scientific advisors for the study.
Science and technology partners include Pennsylvania State University, the University of Wyoming, and Scientific Aviation, a leading provider of airborne emissions sensing.
Pennsylvania State University will install a network of tower-based, stationary sensors to continuously measure methane concentrations, which will be analyzed to estimate regional emissions and how they change over the project.
University of Wyoming will deploy a vehicle-based, downwind approach to quantify site-level methane emissions from oil and gas sites, including as a comparison to aerial measurements.
In addition to the frequent data releases, findings from the scientific work conducted for this project will be presented for peer-review.
Texas and New Mexico
Findings from the study are intended to help guide how companies, states and the federal government measure, monitor and manage methane emissions.
Collected data from this project could facilitate better management by operators and transparency for local communities. A fuller, more robust picture of methane emissions could also drive more effective regulations.
The Permian spans the Texas and New Mexico border, and the two states have taken very different approaches responding to the methane challenge. Texas has yet to take significant regulatory action — and has done little to enforce the rules currently on the books.
New Mexico has also suffered from a lack of strong regulatory frameworks and oversight. However, Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham announced earlier this year that the state is moving forward with a process to develop robust methane rules.
“Under Gov. Lujan Grisham, New Mexico is committed to crafting and implementing nationally-leading rules to cut methane waste and pollution.” said Sarah Cottrell Propst, Secretary of New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. “Innovative, data-driven methane measurement projects can help New Mexico do just that.”
The sentiment is echoed by other officials including New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary James Kenney, who said, “Gathering accurate and reliable methane emissions data in the Permian Basin is key to developing a robust and science-based emissions reduction strategy.”
Focus on actionable solutions
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas; human-made emissions are responsible for at least a quarter of the warming we’re experiencing today. Worldwide, the oil and gas industry releases about 75 million metric tons of methane each year. The International Energy Agency estimates that the oil and gas industry can use today’s technologies to reduce emissions by 75% — two thirds of which are achievable at zero net cost to industry.
Cutting emissions is often as simple as tightening valves, closing tanks that have been inadvertently left open, or relighting flares. Science shows that the biggest emissions tend to come in random, unpredictable ways, which means proactive, regular monitoring is among the best reduction strategies.
Development of new methane monitoring technologies is happening at an accelerated pace, with more options coming to market every year — allowing companies to find leaks faster and reducing emissions at lower cost.