Methane emissions from the massive Permian Basin shale fields in Texas and New Mexico are more than twice the U.S. government estimate, according to a paper published last week in the journal Science Advances, and experts say global emissions are on track to increase during the COVID-19 crisis as low oil prices push producers to save money on scheduled maintenance of pipelines and other infrastructure.
The satellite and modelling data, assembled between May 2018 and March 2019, represent “the largest methane flux ever reported from a U.S. oil/gas-producing region,” amounting to 3.7% of all the gas extracted from the Permian, the paper states. That’s 15 to 18.5 times more than the methane intensity target adopted in 2018 by the fossil industry’s Oil and Gas Climate Initiative.
Methane is the second-largest source of climate pollution after carbon dioxide, and while it’s a shorter-lived greenhouse gas, it is 84 times more potent than CO2 over its first 20 years in the atmosphere—the crucial time span when humanity must get atmospheric warming under control.
But the research conducted by a U.S. Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) team found Permian Basin emissions at an all-time high. “There has been a big ramp up in oil production in that region, and when you don’t care too much about recovering the natural gas, it makes for a large emission,” co-author Daniel Jacob, a professor of atmospheric chemistry and environmental engineering at Harvard University, told InsideClimate News.
With the pandemic crushing oil prices and production, “there is going to be a lot less wells being drilled, probably less gas being flared, even wells [that] will [probably] be shut in,” added co-author and EDF scientist David Lyon. “If that is done properly, then I think you will have less emissions. At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of operators cut back on their environmental staff and they do less leak inspections and other activities that would reduce emissions. They may have less ability to respond to malfunctions and things that cause emissions.”
Which means that, “unlike carbon emissions, methane emissions don’t decrease when the world’s economy slows down,” Poppy Kalesi, EDF’s policy director for European oil and gas, told Bloomberg. “With lower oil and gas prices, we already see efficiency savings in companies, which means that they might be more relaxed about their environmental protocols.”
Even before COVID-19 hit, “large global methane leaks from the fossil fuels industry in 2019 were equal to the total volume of CO2 emitted by Germany and France combined, according to data from Kayrros SAS, a Paris-based technology company,” Bloomberg writes. That estimate was based on technology that can only detect leaks of at least 10 tons per hour, meaning that smaller ones are slipping through the investigative cracks.
And now, “the likelihood of increased methane emissions this year due to the economic downturn isn’t merely hypothetical,” the news agency adds. “Europe’s biggest offshore gas field, Equinor’s Troll A off the coast of Norway, cancelled multiple maintenance programs after an employee on the rig tested positive for COVID-19. In the U.S., Equitrans Midstream Corporation is rescheduling maintenance activities that aren’t compliance-related as the coronavirus strangles equipment supply lines and threatens worker safety.”
And “unlike carbon emissions, which face any number of regulations and limits from governments and corporate sustainability targets, methane emissions have gone largely unchecked,” Bloomberg notes, even though “just reducing methane emissions by 40% would have an effect on global warming equivalent to the immediate shutdown of 60% of the world’s coal-fired power plants.” Fossils and their ally in the White House have been fighting those controls, and relaxed methane rules were also on the agenda in the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ “crass attempt” to push through a vast deregulatory agenda on the back of a global health emergency.