NASA research identifies key site for US methane emissions reductions

Back in April, we shared how a NASA project was using satellites to identify sites of extreme emissions generation, also known as “super emitters.” Now, preliminary results from the satellite imagery have already identified areas where a few fixes could go a long way in terms of reducing emissions. 

A specific new study finds that the Permian Basin in Texas is a hotbed for methane leaks. Although less emphasized than CO2 emissions, methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas. The Permian is a huge energy generation site and responsible for 38 percent of U.S. oil and 17 percent of its gas. Most of the methane escaping these operations is due to leaks that operators likely don’t even know about. Because of these secret leaks, it’s difficult to quantify the impact of the Permian’s emissions, but thanks to the new study, work can begin to locate and stop these emissions. 

The EPA estimates that the Permian emits 1.4 million metric tons of methane each year, but NASA’s results indicate the reality could be four times higher. To identify where these leaks were coming from, researchers flew planes over the 21,000-square-mile basin, using spectrometers to assess methane emissions from the region’s 60,000 active wells. 

Study coauthor Riley Duren, an engineering fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said, “When I look at animations of our methane plumes over the Permian Basin, it’s like watching invisible wildfires all over the landscape. Nobody knows it’s there, in most cases, because the measurements aren’t there.”

The research team found that 30 percent of the identified leaks were steady, meaning they are due to malfunctioning equipment. What’s more, the bulk of all emissions came from just 30 percent of all the surveyed wells: a total of 123 sites. Fixing these leaks alone would reduce total methane emissions in the US by a shocking 5.5 percent, or 55 tons an hour. They also identified that 38 percent of leaks came from pipelines and other types of transport equipment, meaning they should be areas of focus for environmental action in oil and gas fields. 

When it comes to lowering emissions, identifying the most damaging actors is the first step to large-scale reductions. The researchers hope that exposing the exact sources of these emissions will mobilize private companies and regulators to take action on these super emitters. 

Source study: ACS Publications – Intermittency of Large Methane Emitters in the Permian Basin

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