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Study: Methane emissions much higher than EPA says

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Methane emissions from domestic oil and gas operations may be 60 percent higher than current Environmental Protection Agency estimates, according to a new study published today in the journal Science.

The report says U.S. industry operations emit 13 million metric tons of methane each year, indicating a leak rate of 2.3 percent. That compares with EPA’s estimate of 1.4 percent, according to the study, which the Environmental Defense Fund coordinated with co-authors from 15 institutions.

If accurate, the amount leaked represents about $2 billion annually in lost gas, or enough to fuel 10 million homes.

The findings include measurements at hundreds of well pads in six basins and scores of gathering and processing facilities, plus extensive aerial surveys of infrastructure, said EDF chief scientist and study co-author Steven Hamburg. The final report combines new data with an underlying investigation conducted over five years by researchers from 40 institutions. Fifty oil and gas companies cooperated, providing site access and technical advice.

“This is by far the most comprehensive body of research of its kind,” Hamburg said in a prepared statement.

Local and national environmentalists are fighting efforts by President Donald Trump’s administration to roll back Obama-era regulations that force oil and gas companies to cut leaking, venting and flaring of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps far more heat than carbon dioxide in the short term, contributing significantly to global warming.

New Mexico is front and center in the debate, because more methane is vented on federal and tribal lands here than elsewhere, said EDF regulatory and legislative affairs director Jon Goldstein.

“New Mexico is a significant part of this problem,” Goldstein told the Journal. “This study shows the need for action here.”

EDF previously estimated New Mexico operators leaked and vented $150 million worth of natural gas every year, and up to $240 million if flaring is included, amounting to about $27 million annually in lost state revenue from taxes and royalties.

“That’s bad for New Mexico taxpayers and bad for our air,” Goldstein said.

An industry spokesman says companies are already aggressively working to lower emissions. Methane leakage declined 46 percent in the San Juan Basin and 6 percent in the Permian from 2011-2016, according to the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman.

“That reflects concerted efforts by out industry to catch as much methane as possible,” said NMOGA spokesman Robert McEntyre. “We’re seeing a lot of investment in new technologies to tackle the issue.”

That includes new commitments by some of the largest companies – such as ExxonMobil, its subsidiary XTO Energy, BP, Shell, and Quatar Petroleum – to meet targeted reduction goals.

But with the Trump administration seeking to scale back federal regulations, EDF says more needs to be done at the state level.

“Enough methane is just going up in smoke each year to heat every home in our state,” Goldstein said. “Solutions exist and many companies are pursuing them. But it’s up to state regulators to complete the job and assure that all New Mexico producers are held to the same standards.”

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