A U.S. oil-producing region is leaking twice as much methane as once thought

oil storage tanks in Pecos, Texas

More than twice as much methane is leaking from an oil- and gas-producing region called the Permian Basin than previously thought, satellite data show. Large amounts of venting and flaring (shown here at Pecos, Texas, oil field storage tanks), or burning off of methane during production and transportation, may be to blame.

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Satellite data show that more than twice as much methane is leaking from a vast U.S. oil- and natural gas-producing region than previously estimated. From May 2018 to March 2019, a European Space Agency satellite measured an average of 2.7 teragrams of methane emitted each year from the Permian Basin, which spans more than 160,000 square kilometers in western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Previously, ground-based estimates of the methane leaked from the region’s oil and gas activities were about 1.2 teragrams per year.

The new estimate represents 3.7 percent of the total volume of natural gas being extracted from the Permian Basin, say Yuzhong Zhang, an atmospheric scientist at Harvard University, and colleagues. Such a leakage rate is 60 percent higher than the national average, and is also the highest rate ever measured from a U.S. oil- and gas-producing region, the team reports April 22 in Science Advances.

Production in the Permian Basin has skyrocketed in the last decade; the region now accounts for about 30 percent of U.S. oil production, and about 10 percent of its natural gas. This growth may be exceeding the ability of the existing infrastructure in the region to contain and transport the gas, leading to extensive venting and flaring. That could be to blame for the high leakage rate, the researchers say.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, although it lingers in the atmosphere only for a decade or two (SN: 2/19/20). During that time period, it has about 80 times the atmosphere-warming potential of longer-lived carbon dioxide. Identifying and accurately quantifying very large methane emissions from human activities, such as the fossil fuel industry and landfills, is crucial to curbing climate change (SN: 11/14/19).

This study demonstrates the ability of a new satellite sensor, the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument, or TROPOMI, to map atmospheric methane emissions from a region; in the future, satellites could help quantify methane leaked from many source regions around the globe, the researchers say.

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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