We flew over 8,000 oil and gas wells. Here's what we found.

Jon Goldstein

Drive by an oil or gas well pad, maybe out West, and it may not look like much. You’ll see a couple of storage tanks, some pipes, maybe a see-sawing pump jack.

For a different and more eye-opening view, fly over one of these industrial sites with an infrared camera. Chances are you’ll now see dark plumes of methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, pouring from the facility or piece of equipment.

We did exactly that for a new study to determine how common so-called “super emitter” sites are.

These large and evasive sources of methane pollution make up the lion’s share of the roughly 9 million tons the oil and gas industry wastefully spews into the atmosphere every year. And they provide an urgent reminder why stronger methane pollution laws are needed now.

We hired one of America’s most experienced leak detection companies to fly a helicopter over 8,000 well pads in seven states across the country for our study, using infrared technology to capture photos and videos of methane and other pollutants. It was the largest-ever study of its kind in the United States.

A grim picture emerged from those helicopter trips over Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Wyoming: Methane pollution is widespread, pouring out from hundreds of these super emitter sites.

Worse, these leaks sit largely undetected.

But our research also confirmed what other studies have shown, namely that super emitters are nearly impossible to predict. They can happen anywhere, anytime, when malfunctioning equipment goes unattended and sloppy mistakes are made.

This is why we can no longer continue to rely on industry policing itself. We need strong rules that require all operators to keep their facilities from polluting the atmosphere.

An affordable and effective fix

Regularly checking oil and gas facilities for leaky equipment is the most effective way to identify both big pollution sources – which our study focused on – but also smaller sources that together make up a significant share of industry emissions.

Such systematic checks are both affordable and effective.

In Colorado, for example, operators have been inspecting oil and gas equipment for leaks – at some sites as often as once month – for more than two years now. Industry has been on board and voiced no complaints over the program.

Momentum is building: Will you help?

Earlier this year, President Obama pledged to cut methane pollution from all existing oil and gas infrastructure, after already issuing a rule for future sites. His latest commitment requires the government to get serious about comprehensive, rigorous methane monitoring and repair for the first time in United States history.

The Bureau of Land Management has also proposed semi-annual leak detection practices at existing sources to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas facilities on federal and tribal lands. But as our data shows, more stringent and sweeping practices are needed nationwide to curb methane emissions, especially from super emitters. 

Coming off the hottest year on record, the time for action has never been more pressing.

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