Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Since the fall, two Cessna aircraft have flown daily over New Mexico’s southeastern plains to snap detailed images of methane plumes billowing out of oil and gas operations in the Permian Basin.
The aircraft use special cameras equipped with spectrometers that measure methane through reflected sunlight while simultaneously collecting optical images backed by GPS to precisely identify where the plumes are coming from. California-based Kairos Aerospace developed and patented the cameras, known as “LeakSurveyors,” which it attaches to the wings of rented Cessnas. That allows the company to map hundreds of miles of Permian-based methane emissions every day.
Kairos plans to survey the entire Permian Basin in both West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, covering a total of 60,000 square miles by the end of this year.
“We’re looking at everything, from well pads to pipelines,” Kairos co-founder and CEO Steve Deiker told the Journal. “We can pinpoint emissions down to 20 feet or so from the source to actually see where the leak is coming from. It will be the largest comprehensive survey of methane leaks in an oil field ever done.”
Kairos’ effort reflects unprecedented national attention on methane emissions in the Permian Basin, particularly on the New Mexico side, where state officials are preparing new regulations for the first time to crack down on methane releases by industry.
Seeking dependable data
To do that, the state needs dependable baseline data that accurately shows current emission levels in New Mexico and where they’re coming from. That’s critical to set effective policies to reduce emissions and continue tracking trends into the future, said Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst.
“We need a base platform for effective regulations,” Cottrell Propst said. “We don’t have great data yet and we need it.”
Methane emissions are now front and center in New Mexico efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, since methane is about 86 times more powerful than carbon as a heat-trapping gas during the first 20 years after its release into the atmosphere.
And New Mexico’s oil and gas industry is a major contributor, especially given the boom in Permian-based production in recent years.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered Cottrell Propst and Environment Secretary James Kenney in January to jointly develop a new regulatory framework for reducing methane emissions. It is part of a broad executive order for state agencies to work on cutting greenhouse gas emissions overall by 45 percent below 2005 levels over the next 12 years.
The methane problem stems from venting, flaring and leaking of natural gas during industry operations. But there’s no consensus-based estimate of just how much is escaping, nor clear data on the originating sources.
Current estimates come from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and from environmental groups that work with universities and other research institutes. But those studies have generated fierce bickering between industry and environmentalists over the findings.
Industry stands by the EPA, which reported last year that methane emissions from both New Mexico’s side of the Permian and the San Juan Basin in the Four Corners area dropped by 6 percent from 2016 to 2017.
Based on EPA data, a new study released in April by the industry-funded research institute Energy in Depth said methane emissions in the Permian Basin overall, including New Mexico and West Texas, fell by 4.2 percent from 2011-2017, from a total of 4.8 million metric tons to 4.6 MT. And that’s despite a 125 percent leap in oil and gas production in the basin during the same period.
That demonstrates a 57 percent plummet in the intensity of emissions from operations there, according to the report.
New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Ryan Flynn said the decline reflects voluntary industry efforts to reduce emissions with new technology, plus ramped up monitoring and mitigation efforts.
“The intensity of methane emissions declined dramatically over time in the Permian even while we saw massive increases in production,” Flynn said. “Everyone agrees that we need to reduce emissions, but we need to look at measures that gain the most bang for the buck.”
Industry wants to work with state officials, but regulatory measures should be “reasonable,” Flynn added.
Environmentalists, however, say EPA estimates are inaccurate. The data is compiled from industry operators who provide reports on their own emissions to the EPA, which then extrapolates the data to estimate overall emission totals in a given basin. Only the large operators that produce more than 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent must self-report to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. That means emissions from all smaller operators – which account for roughly one-third of the state’s oil and gas wells – are not included in EPA estimates, said Jon Goldstein, regulatory and legislative affairs director for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Goldstein also said EPA modeling is based on outdated “emissions factors” that don’t reflect current production in the Permian.
In contrast, EDF has worked with universities and research institutes on two different studies since 2015 that show far higher emissions than reported by the EPA. Those studies are based on direct, independent field sampling of emissions using infrared cameras at select sites to measure empirical data, which it then extrapolates to model overall emissions.
Its latest study, released in April, showed more than 1 million MT of annual methane emissions in New Mexico, nearly five times higher than EPA estimates of 200,000 MT, and twice as high as EDF’s last study in 2017, which was based on field measurements done two years earlier. The study indicates emissions are rising substantially alongside increased oil and gas production, Goldstein said.
EDF estimates New Mexico producers are wasting about $275 million in natural gas annually through leaking, venting and flaring, costing the state about $43 million per year in lost royalties and tax revenue.
Questioning EDF modeling
Flynn, however, said EDF is greatly overestimating emissions in its modeling.
“It’s all about the numbers and assumptions you put into the modeling,” Flynn said. “You can connect the dots however you want based on how you manipulate that information.”
The Kairos aerial survey may or may not help in tabulating overall emissions. For one thing, the data collected is proprietary and targeted for sale to industry customers to track and address critical leaks and problems in their operations.
But it can help in pinpointing large emission hot spots to focus on for rapid intervention. With just 35 percent of the aerial survey completed in New Mexico, Kairos has found that fewer than 4 percent of oil and gas operating sites are contributing about 80 percent of the emissions, according to Kairos’ CEO.
“Overall, we’re finding that most emissions are coming from a very small number of leaks,” Deiker said. “That helps customers, because if we know through our surveys where the largest leaks are, they can make changes very quickly with much less expense.”
EDF said that concurs with its own findings, which show “super-emitting” sites. But accurately assessing problems at smaller sites is also critical to develop a complete baseline for regulations.
To do that, the state needs to look at all surveys and studies together, said physicist Robert Kleinberg, an industry veteran and senior research scholar with the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
Seeking best data
Kleinberg said the real answer is to combine data from Kairos’ air surveys with ground-based measurements “to get the full picture.”
State officials agree.
“There’s lots of discrepancies, because different organizations are gathering data in different manners and they get different results,” said Oil Conservation Division Director Adrienne Sandoval. “How that data then gets compiled is often opaque.”
Environment Secretary Kenney said officials will look at all available sources, including direct field data gathered by state experts.
The Environment Department did an unprecedented air quality inspection sweep of 98 sites in the Permian in late April to determine if operators are complying with emission permits for volatile organic compounds, which cause ground-level ozone, or smog. Methane is released alongside VOCs, so compiling VOC emissions data allows inspectors to also collect data on methane.
“We’re making direct efforts to establish an emissions baseline in New Mexico,” Kenney said. “We’ll look at as much peer-reviewed, validated data as possible. We’re taking a scientific approach, looking at all sources and integrating it all to understand the true baseline.”