Methane hunters tap new technology to police U.S. greenhouse emissions


Methane emissions, which come from oil and natural gas production, plant decay, and agricultural waste, are 25 times more potent in warming than carbon dioxide.

ARTESIA, NEW MEXICO - Charlie Barrett walks through an oilfield in New Mexico's southeastern desert, where the air smells of rotten eggs and old pumpjacks sit among shrub oaks, and turns on an infrared camera that can detect emissions from oil and gas equipment.

Barrett, who works for environmental group Earthworks, is hunting for methane — a greenhouse gas accounting for about a third of global warming that has become a focus for the oil industry's and the Biden administration's climate agenda.

He points the $120,000 camera at a thin metal pole sticking out of the ground near a rusty storage tank. The rotten egg smell is a telltale sign of hydrogen sulfide, which can be found in the state's natural gas alongside the main component: methane — meaning gas is seeping out somewhere nearby.

Sure enough, the camera's viewfinder captures a dark stream of methane spewing out of the pole.


Gas flaring is seen at a WPX Energy storage and processing facility in the Permian Basin in New Mexico, on April 6, 2023. (Liz Hampton/REUTERS)

Methane emissions, which come from oil and natural gas production, plant decay and agricultural waste, are 25 times more potent in warming than carbon dioxide. Restricting leaks, as well as routine venting and flaring, from oil and gas wells and equipment is one of the fastest way to cut methane emissions, which are often undetectable to the naked eye and for the most part odorless.

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Environmentalists like Barrett have searched for leaking wells and pipelines for years. But they cannot trespass on private property — where most oil and gas infrastructure resides — and their cameras are not equipped to measure the volume of methane coming from a facility, information that regulators need to decide whether to pursue their complaints.

That is about to change: early next year, an affiliate of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a climate activist group that aims to slash methane emissions from energy and farming by 30 per cent this decade, will launch a satellite dedicated to finding methane emissions. Unlike existing commercial operators that operate on subscription, MethaneSAT will freely provide its location and methane scale data to the public. The company aims to scan 80 per cent of the world’s oil and gas producing regions.

Activist groups are also about to be empowered by new Biden administration regulations that propose requiring oil and gas companies to address so-called super-emitting emissions — those of at least 10 kilograms per hour — that are documented by outside groups like Earthworks or EDF. The fact that these groups will be armed with never-before publicly available precision information means even companies operating in remote areas will no longer be able to hide their emissions.

"Accountability will come, whether it is through the work of grassroots organizations or the new satellites coming online this year," said Marcelo Mena, former environment minister of Chile and head of Global Methane Hub, which secured over $300 million in funding from more than 20 major philanthropic institutions to help reduce methane emissions.

Independent inspectors

New Mexico, the fastest growing and second-largest U.S. oil-producing state, will be a test case for how activists and satellite services might stop emissions releases from oil and gas facilities. The state has enacted more rigorous regulations around methane than other leading producers such as Texas and North Dakota.

New Mexico accounted for half of all the new U.S. oil production last year and its output rose 66 per cent between 2021 and the start of 2023. But despite a reputation for enacting regulations, the state lacks the inspectors to fully ensure that emissions from its oil and gas infrastructure do not go unnoticed or ignored.

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It produces more than four times the oil that neighboring Colorado does, but has just 16 inspectors compared to Colorado's 27. It would take more than nine years to inspect all the state's 4,300 petroleum storage tanks, according to a report from the state's environment department.


An oil tank and an oil pumpjack are pictured in the Permian basin Loco Hills regions of New Mexico on April 6, 2023. (Liz Hampton/REUTERS)

"Oil and gas production in New Mexico has grown faster, writ large, than investments made in the Oil Conservation Division (OCD) internal capacity," said Dylan Fuge, director of the state's regulator.

His agency conducts more than 30,000 inspections each year, he said, and tries to physically visit each site at least once every three years.

That gap has created an opening for local activists such as Earthworks. Last year, the group filed 67 reports on potential releases in New Mexico's southeast Permian basin and 11 from an area in the northwestern part of the state, Barrett said.

New Mexico's Environmental Department launched 22 investigations based on the complaints, but has not disclosed its findings to Earthworks, Barrett said.

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In early April, New Mexico's regulator issued violation notices and proposed penalties to six oil and gas producers for violating its methane venting and flaring rule, including Avant Natural Resources, Permian Resources Corp and Tascosa Energy Partners. The OCD found that 10 facilities operated by those six firms were responsible for 15 per cent of all flaring and venting in 2022 in the state.

Permian Resources and Avant did not respond to a request for comment. Tascosa Energy Partners said it had reached out to the regulator to clarify what happened and why flaring was the best course of action.

Flaring is the controlled combustion of methane into carbon dioxide, which is 25 times less impactful as a greenhouse gas than methane over a century, making it better from an environmental standpoint than venting, which involves the direct release of methane, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

"We were very pro-active in resolving the issue," a Tascosa spokesperson said.

Outside groups

More than half of the oil industry methane emissions in the U.S. come from the Permian shale field, according to monitoring firm GHGSat. The 86,000-square-mile region spans west Texas and New Mexico's largest producing counties. GHGSat says 56 per cent of its satellite scans in the Permian detected greenhouse gas emissions last year, up from 43 per cent in 2021.

In New Mexico, 34 per cent of satellite scans last year by GHGSat found emissions with an average rate of 850 kilograms per hour. If one methane emission of this rate was sustained for a year, that would equate to roughly 41,000 cars on the road.

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The state's oil regulator in 2021 implemented a rule to curb routine methane venting and flaring, while a separate initiative by the state's Environment Department cracked down on leaks, particularly from smaller facilities.

New Mexico operators are on track to capture 98 per cent of produced natural gas by 2026, and cut routine venting and flaring by 69 per cent between October 2021 and Aug. 31 last year.

MethaneSAT, which counts billionaire former energy trader John Arnold among its funders, will make its data publicly available.

Satellite analytics firm Kayrros has partnerships with the UNEP's International Methane Emissions Observatory and International Energy Agency. GHGSat also works with oil and gas firms and groups that help detect and fix pipeline leaks.

“We see reducing methane emissions in oil and gas as a triple win: climate change, energy security and bottom-line," said Ben Ratner, executive director with JP MorganChase's Sustainability Team, which drives development and implementation of company-wide sustainability and climate initiatives. "Our O&G clients are taking action and piloting new technologies and working towards emissions reductions."

Reporting by Liz Hampton in Artesia, New Mexico; editing by Gary McWilliams and Claudia Parsons.

An oil pump jack is seen in the Loco Hills region of New Mexico, on April 6, 2023. (Liz Hampton/REUTERS)