New Aircraft Measurements Once Again Detect High Levels of Methane in Permian Basin

Midstream facilities, marginal wells emit more methane than previously thought, highlighting importance of state and EPA regulatory action.

September 23, 2021
Matt McGee, (512) 691-3478, mmcgee@edf.org

(AUSTIN, TX) New methane measurements collected in the Permian Basin – the world’s largest oilfield – indicate the oil and gas industry continues to struggle with controlling methane emissions. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that the oil and gas sector emits along with other harmful pollutants that can harm public health and deteriorate air quality.

The new data was collected during an 11-day period in August by Carbon Mapper as part of EDF’s PermianMAP initiative. The aircraft detected over 900 plumes of methane from more than 500 sources. As with previous surveys of the area, this new data again confirm that super emitting sites continue to be a problem across the Permian.

Key findings:

  • In just over a week, the aircraft detected nearly 50 plumes emitting at least one metric ton of methane an hour.
  • Large emissions persisted over multiple days at approximately 30% of these sites; the remainder were intermittent.
  • The midstream sector – facilities that gather and treat gas from well pads across the region – was responsible for about 50% of detected emissions.
  • Despite typically having lower absolute emission rates assumed to be invisible to aircraft, nearly one out of every 10 emission sources identified were lower producing “marginal wells.”

Video for media available here.

“What this data tells us is that even after two years of increased focus on the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions, this problem remains,” said EDF senior scientist David Lyon. “This underlines the importance of strong, comprehensive action from state and federal regulators to clean up this industry and protect local communities from pollution.”

Status of current state, national and global methane reduction efforts

The state of New Mexico – which straddles the Permian Basin alongside Texas – is currently finalizing new standards to control oil and gas emissions. Texas, the nation’s largest oil and gas producer, has yet to take meaningful action to address the problem.

The findings of this recent survey come just a week after the U.S. and European Union announced a global pact to reduce global economy-wide methane emissions 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. The Environmental Protection Agency’s pending proposal of new rules to reduce oil and gas methane pollution will play a core role in delivering on U.S. commitments under the pledge.

“Without strong state and federal regulatory action, the Permian Basin is showing itself to be an unfolding disaster for the climate,” said Jon Goldstein, senior director of regulatory and legislative affairs at EDF. “Strong EPA and state rules are mission critical for curbing pollution, protecting the health of local communities and meeting our climate goals.”

EPA’s forthcoming methane protections are expected to cover emissions from midstream facilities. These findings, along with previous research, underline that these new pollution standards should include other significant sources of emissions, like flaring and marginal wells as well.

Earlier research indicates that marginal wells contribute an outsized share of total emissions, with this data underscoring these wells’ potential to emit high volumes of methane despite lower levels of production. And previous EDF data makes clear flaring is also a major contributor to Permian methane emissions. Surveys consistently found 10% of flares are malfunctioning or entirely unlit – pumping significant volumes of methane into the atmosphere.

“We know that flaring and marginal wells are huge pieces of the methane problem, and if EPA’s rules are to meet this climate moment they’ll have to advance solutions that ban the routine venting and flaring of natural gas as states like New Mexico and Colorado have done,” added Lyon.

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