A congressional committee investigated some of the largest oil and gas companies in the Permian Basin, finding they were likely under-reporting their emissions of methane air pollution to the federal government.
The U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology convened Wednesday to discuss the finding of its report focused on the Permian and strategies to address fossil fuel’s environmental impact.
Three findings came from the inquiry: oil and gas companies are failing to address “super-emitting” gas leaks and to use proper data to mitigate methane emissions while they are “inconsistently” using monitoring technology throughout the U.S.’ main oil fields.
The 18-month study conducted by committee members analyzed methane emissions and efforts to mitigate leaks from 10 companies, including major Permian Basin oil and gas companies Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Devon Energy, ExxonMobil, Occidental Petroleum and Pioneer Natural Resources.
The Permian Basin, about 75,000 square miles stretching from southeast New Mexico to West Texas is the U.S.’ busiest oilfield, accounting for about 40 percent of the nation’s oil production, per the Texas Railroad Commission.
U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-NM), a member of the committee who represents the state’s First Congressional District which after last year’s redistricting includes parts of Chaves and Otero counties in southeast New Mexico near the Permian Basin oil fields said the results of pollution were already proving dire to her state.
She attributed a recent rash of wildfires in the state, including the two biggest in New Mexico’s history, as a direct result of climate change driven by the emission of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) like methane.
Stansbury said the oil and gas industry must be held accountable, arguing the global oil and gas industry produced more methane than the total GHG emissions of “164 countries combined.”
“Across New Mexico, our communities are experiencing a devastating drought and our firefighters are battling unprecedented wildfires, weeks before wildfire season begins,” read Stansbury’s prepared remarks for the hearing.
“We must take decisive action now to address the causes of climate change while investing in the sustainability and resilience of our communities. “This means tackling the main offenders among greenhouse gases.”
David Lyon, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund testified before the committee that the oil and gas industry was the nation’s largest industrial source of methane emissions, but also had the most “cost-effective” solutions.
“Capturing methane often allows companies to sell more natural gas,” he said. “Additionally, the methane mitigation industry provides many high paying jobs and is rapidly growing. However, delaying the widespread adoption of mitigation measures will substantially worsen climate impacts and cause continuing harm to communities and workers.”
The report estimated the Permian Basin was “likely the largest observed methane-emitting oil and gas basin in the United States,” and that emissions were up to 6.5 times those estimated by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.
“In simple terms, the U.S. oil and gas sector is emitting methane on a vastly larger scale than was previously known, and by a considerable amount more than the official inventory estimates maintained by the U.S. Government,” the report read.
As oil and gas operations grew in recent years, targeting the prolific region, so too did air-pollution from the fossil fuel sector, the report read, meaning companies should take additional actions to mitigate their environmental impact – especially at facilities known to have the highest levels of emissions.
“Recent scientific research has established that a small group of massive, ‘super-emitting” methane leaks is disproportionately responsible for methane emissions from the oil and gas sector,” the report read.
“By not prioritizing methane super-emitters, oil and gas companies are missing opportunities for rapid emissions reductions.”
The use of leak detection and repair (LDAR) technology should be used more across the oil and gas industry, the report read, to find the source of emissions and prevent them from continuing.
“Oil and gas companies can realize sweeping methane mitigation benefits by deploying innovative LDAR technologies comprehensively across their operations,” read the report.
“While many oil and gas companies are deploying these technologies at varying scales and frequencies, most deployments remain in the pilot phase with scopes that are too narrow to support emissions reductions on a timeline that meets the urgency of the climate crisis.”
The committee suggested reforms at federal agencies that monitor oil and gas’ pollution, after finding internal data showed methane emissions “significantly higher” than what was reported to the EPA.
This entailed creating a new federal program conducting emission monitoring through the U.S. and comparing the results to industry published data, while also increasing LDAR technology and commissioning a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on a national prevention strategy.
The work should focus on “super-emitters,” the report read, estimating about 12 percent of emissions sources in the Permian were responsible half of the region’s releases – mostly attributed to equipment malfunctions and leaks.
These leaks can stop and start sporadically, read the report, meaning frequent, continual monitoring was needed for accurate data.
“Even where oil and gas companies are deploying innovative LDAR technologies at greater frequency and scope, flawed approaches are undermining the ability of LDAR programs to target super-emitting leaks,” the report read.
“These responses indicate a troubling lack of initiative on the part of the oil and gas sector to proactively implement LDAR practices designed to reduce super-emitting leaks.”
Air pollution resulting from oil and gas was main driver of climate change, the report read, and the industry must take responsibility for preventing further damage to the environment.
“They know how grave the super-emitter problem is. And yet, they are still failing to take the simple steps necessary to make it a mitigation priority,” read the report. “The oil and gas sector cannot avoid responsibility for confronting super-emitting methane leaks by claiming that the science is uncertain, as their own data says otherwise.”
Committee Chair U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said in her remarks before the committee that the oil and gas industry must take a leading role in mitigating its own environmental impact, and such efforts must be “informed by science.”
“Unfortunately, the oil and gas sector has a long way to go to rein in methane leaks,” she said. “The oil and gas sector must do a better job of adopting science-based approaches to solve its methane leak problem.”