New methane leak detection technologies are emerging in West Texas. Scientists are using a combination of ground sensors and aircraft to monitor emissions and pinpoint sources of the gases. But these technologies have proven challenging to implement because of the elusiveness of methane. It is odorless and colorless, making detection difficult unless an operator knows exactly where a leak is. Researchers are also developing new technologies that will better identify the sources of methane emissions and limit their production.
New airborne surveys will take place between 2019 and 2021. The surveys will use advanced remote sensing technology to pinpoint and quantify methane emissions in the Permian Basin, which spans parts of Texas and New Mexico. Researchers have already conducted airborne surveys on a range of oil fields, and the surveys will identify leaks causing up to 3.2% of methane emissions.
The Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization with offices in Austin and Washington, D.C., has been working to fight the oil and gas industry’s abuse of flare permits. The group argues that flares can seriously degrade the air in Texas and threaten public health. Since the Environmental Integrity Project has filed an objection to the Texas Railroad Commission, the company has withdrawn its applications for 41 flares. The company cites operational changes as the reason for the withdrawal of the permits.
The Railroad Commission (RRC) issues flare permits exempting oil and gas companies from flaring prohibitions. Flaring is a practice of venting or releasing natural gas into the air to relieve pressure on the pipeline or empty it during maintenance. The Texas state law permits flared gas for up to 10 days after drilling, and flares are allowed as long as they comply with RRC regulations. Flaring permits are commonly issued by the RRC and can be extended for up to 45 days.
Scientists use the Permian Basin as a laboratory to develop new ways to monitor emissions. These new technologies help oil and gas companies comply with stricter air pollution regulations mandated by the EPA. Scientists are piloting drones, flying satellites, and installing complex ground-sensor networks. Scientists hope to track methane emissions locally and globally and make the data publicly available using these technologies.
The Environmental Defense Fund and other environmental groups have pushed for methane leak sensors to help this challenging task. Methane leaks are one of the most important causes of climate change, but they are also economically valuable. Increasing oil and gas production can lead to a rapid increase in methane emissions, causing climate change. It is noteworthy that methane is much more potent than carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas.
An analysis conducted by the UTSA Institute for Economic Development and the West Texas Energy Consortium found that oil and gas activity in West Texas was worth up to $14.5 billion in 2012. The industry directly supports around 30% of all full-time jobs in the state and generates about $1B in wages and salaries each year. In addition, the industry is responsible for generating $472 million in state revenue and $334 million in severance taxes. This industry will also contribute to the state’s gross regional product, which is $9.4 billion, and local governments will receive $664 million in tax revenue.
The EPA’s proposed rule would mark a significant shift for Texas oil producers. In recent years, the state has enjoyed less stringent regulations than neighboring states, and those states have dramatically cut their flare-off, venting, and leak rates. According to scientists, cutting methane emissions from the atmosphere would significantly benefit the United States and other nations. Cutting methane emissions would substantially reduce climate change damages, and the state would avoid a peak warming period this century.
Currently, about 30 of these facilities consistently emit large quantities of gas. By repairing leaks and installing other safety measures, these facilities could prevent the release of more than 100,000 tons of methane a year, which is equivalent to the pollution produced by about half a million cars a year. And repairing those leaks alone would save $26 million of wasted gas each year.
Operators of the sites identified by the report lobbied the Trump administration to weaken methane emissions regulations. The group studied regulatory filings and meeting minutes to determine which companies were actively lobbying. At least three times, this lobby group lobbied with government officials. These efforts are part of an industry effort to undo Obama-era regulations that would have required oil and gas companies to monitor methane emissions aggressively and cut flaring.