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Oil and gas companies underreported methane leaks, new study shows

The House Science Committee calls for tougher surveillance amid evidence of super-emitters and undetected leaks in the vast Permian Basin

Power lines and oil wells are seen on the outskirts of Odessa, Tex., on April 5. (Jordan Vonderhaar/Bloomberg News)
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Big oil and gas companies have internal data showing that their methane emissions in the vast Permian Basin “are likely significantly higher than official data” reported to the Environmental Protection Agency, says a new report by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

The companies should adopt tougher surveillance measures to detect and control methane leaks, especially giant super-emitters that contribute to the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, says the report.

“A very significant proportion of methane emissions appear to be caused by a small number of super-emitting leaks,” the report says, noting that a single leak experienced by one company may have accounted for more than 80 percent of the methane emissions that company reported to the EPA from its Permian oil and gas production in 2020.

The report was written by the committee’s Democratic staff using materials requested by Science Committee Chairwoman Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) in a letter to 10 oil and gas companies on Dec. 2. Johnson said the United States could not achieve its goals for reducing methane emissions without a “swift and large-scale decline in oil and gas sector methane leaks.”

The companies were invited by name to provide information, but their results remained anonymous in the final report.

The committee, which will hold a hearing at 10 a.m. Wednesday on detecting and quantifying methane emissions in the oil and gas sector, zeroed in on the Permian Basin because it extends across 55 counties in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico and accounted for 42.6 percent of U.S. oil production and 16.7 percent of U.S. natural gas production in December 2021.

The committee report urged the companies to make greater and more accurate use of the leak surveillance equipment known as Methane Leak Detection and Repair, or LDAR.

“Oil and gas companies are deploying innovative LDAR technologies in a limited and inconsistent manner,” the report said. “Most deployments remain in the pilot phase with scopes that are too narrow to support emissions reductions on a timeline that meets the urgency of the climate crisis.”

One company told the committee that it relied on “lease operator training and in-person inspections (a.k.a. ‘boots-on-the-ground’ inspections),” which the committee report said could not be scaled up over a large area to solve the super-emitting problem.

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Currently, the EPA requires oil and gas firms to inspect their facilities for leaks only twice a year.

“The point is brutally clear,” the report says. “The operator’s technology experts were warning that the technology’s biggest risk was not that it would fail, but rather that it would succeed — and in doing so, would find more methane leaks that the operator would then be responsible for, with all of the accompanying repair costs and reputational risks that might ensue.”

President Biden’s climate and social spending bill, formerly known as the Build Back Better Act, would establish a “methane emissions reduction program” to spur oil and gas companies to cut planet-warming pollution. But the measure has stalled in the Senate for months because of opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), whose panel has jurisdiction over the methane program, expressed optimism that Democrats could secure a deal with Manchin on the spending bill’s climate provisions before the August recess. “I’m hopeful it can provide a foundation on which a broader agreement can be had,” Carper told reporters Tuesday.

In November, the Biden administration also unveiled a sweeping set of domestic policies to cut emissions of methane from oil and gas operations across the United States. The proposals, announced at the U.N. climate summit, represented one of the president’s most consequential efforts to combat climate change.

In addition, the EPA proposed rules that would establish standards for old wells, impose more frequent and stringent leak monitoring, and require the capture of natural gas that is found in association with oil and is often released into the atmosphere. The package marked the first time the federal government had sought to comprehensively tackle the seepage of methane from U.S. oil and gas infrastructure.

Apart from regulation, efforts to get major oil and gas companies to measure and capture methane emissions have been gaining support among companies and shareholders. A resolution at Chevron’s recent annual meeting called on the company to summarize its methane-detection efforts and inform investors if the measurements strayed from the company’s own published estimates of its emissions. Chevron’s board of directors supported the proposal, which passed with the support of 98 percent of shareholders.

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Yet of the 10 operators that provided information to the House Science Committee, nine said that they lack any internal definition of a super-emitting leak, the report said. Two of them said they did not believe current technologies could accurately quantify emissions leaks.

“When it comes to the role of their own super-emitters in the Permian, all ten operators are in the dark,” the report said.

However, one company said that monitoring at scale was “realistic and achievable.”

And the scale can be daunting. Occidental Petroleum, for example, reported it had 14,929 wellheads in the Permian Basin. They released 2,107,191 metric tons of methane and other greenhouse gases equivalent to carbon dioxide.

Irving, Tex.-based Pioneer Natural Resources said in a letter replying to Johnson that it aims to achieve a 75 percent reduction of methane emissions intensity by 2030. That covers Pioneer’s operations, but not the greenhouse gases emitted by its customers when they burn natural gas.

Pioneer said it also uses a wide variety of ground sensors and aerial technology developed by a company called Bridger Photonics for broad oil field surveys.

In 2020, Pioneer performed about 7,800 site surveys using a variety of advanced technologies at the company’s wellheads, tank batteries and compressor stations. Those surveys revealed 914 confirmed leaks, which were repaired, Pioneer said.

A Science Committee staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the committee hearing Wednesday, said that “just conducting aerial surveys is a simple first step” and “a snapshot in time,” as is true for any detection technology. Pioneer and other companies needed to identify patterns, he said.

The committee staff recommended the creation of a “Methane Census” and the development of voluntary standards to help quantify data.

The companies that were asked by committee to produce materials included Admiral Permian Resources, Ameredev II, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Coterra Energy, Devon Energy, ExxonMobil, Mewbourne Oil, Occidental Petroleum and Pioneer Natural Resources.

Methane is the second-largest contributor to atmospheric warming, accounting for about 30 percent of global warming since the Industrial Revolution. It is about 85 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period and more than 25 times as potent over an entire century.

At the November climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, the United States led the drive for a Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. More than 100 countries signed on, but several major emitters, including Russia, did not.

Maxine Joselow contributed to this report.

correction

An earlier version of this article — quoting a report by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology — said that Occidental Petroleum released 2,107,191 megatons of methane and other greenhouse gases equivalent to carbon dioxide in the Permian Basin in 2020. They released 2,107,191 metric tons.

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