New Study: Low-Producing Oil and Gas Wells Drive Roughly Half of Well Site Methane Pollution Nationwide
Science underscores need for EPA and state rules to reduce emissions from smaller wells to protect climate and public health, while safeguarding energy security
(Austin, TX) A new study published this week in the journal Nature Communications reveals that low-producing oil and gas wells are responsible for approximately half of the methane emitted from all well sites in the United States while accounting for only 6% of the nation’s oil and gas production.
The study examines methane emissions from wells that produce less than 15 barrels of oil equivalent a day and concludes these wells emit methane at a rate 6-12 times higher than the national average – allowing approximately 10% of their gas to leak directly into the atmosphere. That translates to roughly 4 million metric tons of methane emissions annually.
“The methane footprint of these small wells is enormous and can’t be ignored,” said Mark Omara, EDF scientist and lead author of the study. “Our research shows that the total methane emitted from the country’s half million low-producing wells has the same impact on the climate every year as 88 coal-fired power plants.”
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Methane is a potent greenhouse gas responsible for over a quarter of current global warming, and the oil and gas sector is the nation’s largest industrial source of methane pollution. This study’s findings about the sheer volume of methane emitted by low-producing oil and gas wells carry both climate and energy security implications, as methane is not only a climate-forcing agent but also the main component of natural gas – an energy resource being wasted in significant quantities.
Despite making up 80%of the nation’s oil and gas wells, some industry lobbyists have called for these low-producing well sites (also called marginal wells) to be exempted from environmental standards. This research indicates that any policy aimed at significantly reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector must also apply to these pollution sources.
Last year the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new standards to reduce oil and gas methane emissions, but its current proposal omits many smaller well sites from regular monitoring. Meanwhile, policymakers in states including Colorado and New Mexico have already advanced pollution rules that help address the outsized emissions from low-producing wells, demonstrating that doing so is feasible and cost-effective. These states are setting a critical example for EPA to build on.
“This is a completely solvable problem. To protect communities, address climate change and meet our international commitments we must ensure rigorous pollution safeguards apply to these low-producing, high-polluting wells, which make up the vast majority of our oil and gas infrastructure,” said Rosalie Winn, Director and Senior Attorney at EDF. “The science clearly supports stronger EPA standards to reduce the outsized pollution from smaller wells, and the experience of states like Colorado and New Mexico shows how doable that is.”
According to the research, much of the emissions from marginal wells are the result of maintenance and mechanical issues and could be avoided with additional site inspections and oversight. Many of those fixes would also pay for themselves, as the gas these facilities emit into the atmosphere is valued at about $700 million a year at 2019 prices. In fact, these low-producing wells waste enough gas each year to meet the needs of over 3.6 million homes in the U.S., or enough to power every home in the state of Ohio.
“In addition to creating serious pollution problems for local communities, the massive waste of resources from these small wells represents a grave threat to U.S. energy security,” said Jon Goldstein, Senior Director Legal and Regulatory Affairs, EDF. “Companies cannot simultaneously tout the importance of these gas resources for energy security on the one hand while allowing them to leak into the atmosphere unchecked on the other.”
As Russia’s catastrophic invasion of Ukraine roils global energy markets and the U.S. and European Union commit to find solutions that support energy security, EDF estimates that gas saved from commonsense measures in the U.S. to reduce leaks, venting and flaring from oil and gas facilities would provide about half of the Biden administration’s commitment to Europe to replace Russian imports.
The research also finds that about three-quarters of marginal wells are owned by large companies who operate over a hundred different facilities each and have ample resources (average revenue of $335M in 2019) to avoid needless pollution.
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One of the world’s leading international nonprofit organizations, Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org) creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. To do so, EDF links science, economics, law, and innovative private-sector partnerships. With more than 2.5 million members and offices in the United States, China, Mexico, Indonesia and the European Union, EDF’s scientists, economists, attorneys and policy experts are working in 28 countries to turn our solutions into action. Connect with us on Twitter @EnvDefenseFund