EPA announces flights to search for methane in Permian Basin

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency says it will conduct helicopter overflights to look for “super emitters” of methane in the nation’s largest oil and gas-producing region.

The EPA’s Region 6 headquarters in Dallas, Texas, issued a news release about a new enforcement effort in the Permian Basin on Monday, saying the flights would take place over the next two weeks.

The announcement came four days after The Associated Press published an investigation that found 533 oil and gas facilities in the region are releasing large amounts of methane and named the companies most responsible. Colorless and odorless, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that traps 83 times more heat in the atmosphere over a 20-year period than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.

EPA spokesman Tim Carroll said the timing of the agency’s announcement was unrelated to AP’s story and that similar flyovers had been conducted in years past. EPA officials made no mention of an upcoming enforcement investigation in the Permian when interviewed by the AP last month.

EPA Region 6 Administrator Earthea Nance said the Permian Basin accounts for 40 percent of our nation’s oil supply and for years has been spewing dangerous amounts of methane and volatile organic compounds, contributing to climate change and poor air quality.

“The flyover is critical to identifying which facilities are responsible for the bulk of these emissions, and therefore where reductions are most urgently needed,” Nance said, according to the agency’s media release.

The AP used 2021 data from the Carbon Mapper group to document massive amounts of methane venting into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations across the Permian, a 250-mile-wide, bone-dry expanse along the Texas-New Mexico border that a billion years ago was the bottom of a shallow sea.

A partnership between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and academic researchers, Carbon Mapper used an aircraft carrying an infrared spectrometer to detect and quantify the unique chemical fingerprint of methane in the atmosphere. Hundreds of sites were shown persistently spewing the gas over multiple overflights.

Last October, AP reporters visited more than two dozen sites flagged as persistent methane superemitters by Carbon Mapper with a FLIR infrared camera and recorded video of large plumes of hydrocarbon gas containing methane escaping from pipeline compressors, tank batteries, flare stacks and other production infrastructure. The Carbon Mapper data and the AP’s camera work show that many of the worst emitters are steadily charging Earth’s atmosphere with this extra gas.

Carbon Mapper identified the spear sites only by their GPS coordinates. The AP then took the coordinates of the 533 “super spill sites” and cross-referenced them with state drilling permits, air quality permits, pipeline maps, land records and other public documents to piece together the companies most likely responsible.

Just 10 companies owned at least 164 of those sites, according to an AP analysis of Carbon Mapper’s data.

The AP also compared the estimated rates at which the super-emitting sites were observed spewing methane with the annual reports the companies are required to submit to the EPA detailing their greenhouse gas emissions. The AP found that the EPA’s database often fails to account for the true rate of emissions observed in the Permian.

The methane released by these companies will disrupt the climate for decades, contributing to more heat waves, hurricanes, forest fires and floods. There is now almost three times as much methane in the air than there was before the industrial era. The year 2021 saw the worst single increase ever.

The EPA recently adopted restrictions on how much methane can be emitted from new oil and gas facilities. But proposed regulations for the hundreds of thousands of older sites responsible for the bulk of emissions are still under consideration. What is restricted under current federal regulations are toxic air pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and cancer-causing benzene that often accompany methane and are sometimes called “ridealong” gases.

The EPA said this week that it would also collect data from its airborne observations in the Permian and use the GPS locations to identify the facilities that are releasing excess emissions. The agency said it will initiate enforcement action against the responsible companies that could include administrative enforcement actions and referrals to the Department of Justice. The EPA said companies found to be in violation of federal law could face significant financial penalties, as well as future monitoring to verify that corrective actions were taken.


Follow AP reporters Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck and Helen Wieffering at twitter.com/helenwieffering. To contact the AP investigative team, email investigative@ap.org.

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