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 methane “over-emissions” in the nation’s largest oil and gas producing region.

EPA Region 6 headquarters in Dallas, Texas, issued a news release about a new enforcement effort in the Permian Basin on Monday, saying flights will take place within 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 were emitting excessive 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 the AP story and that similar overflights had occurred in previous years. EPA officials made no mention of an upcoming enforcement sweep 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 releasing dangerous amounts of methane and volatile organic compounds, contributing to climate change and poor air quality.

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

The AP used 2021 data from the Carbon Mapper team to document massive amounts of methane spewed into the atmosphere by oil and gas operations in the Permian, a 250-mile stretch along the Texas-New Mexico border that a billion years ago was the bottom of a shallow sea.

A collaboration of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and academic researchers, Carbon Mapper used an airplane carrying an infrared spectrometer to detect and quantify the unique chemical signature of methane in the atmosphere. Hundreds of sites appeared to persistently spew the gas in 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 captured video of large plumes of methane-containing hydrocarbon gas escaping from pipeline compressors, tank batteries, flare stacks and other production infrastructures. Carbon Mapper data and AP camera work show that many of the worst emitters are steadily charging Earth’s atmosphere with this extra gas.

Carbon Mapper identified launch sites from their GPS coordinates alone. The AP then took the coordinates of the 533 “over-emitting” sites and cross-referenced them with state drilling permits, air quality permits, pipeline maps, land records and other public documents to pinpoint the companies possibly responsible.

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

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

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

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

The EPA said this week that it will also collect data from its airborne observations of the Permian and use the GPS locations to pinpoint facilities that are releasing excessive emissions. The agency said it would take enforcement actions against the companies responsible, which 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 corrective action is being taken.

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Follow AP investigators 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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