The challenge of tracking methane emissions and why they are higher than publicly reported

The COP27 climate negotiations in Egypt put a spotlight on the problem of methane emissions, which are responsible for more than a quarter of the warming on the planet today. More countries are pledging to reduce those emissions, but methane leaks remain a serious problem. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The recent international climate summit put a spotlight on the problem of methane emissions, which are responsible for about 30 percent of the planet's warming. More countries are pledging to reduce those emissions.

    And the United Nations is creating a methane detection program using satellite technology. But methane leaks remain a serious problem, particularly at a time when the U.S. has increased oil and natural gas production.

    Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports on the challenge of tracking the emissions and why they are higher than is publicly disclosed.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The road to zero greenhouse gas emissions begins here, in a place where we are hurtling faster and faster in the opposite direction.

    This is the Permian Basin, the largest oil field in America, 86,000 square miles spanning Texas and New Mexico. There are tens of thousands of oil wells here. Current production is about 5.5 million barrels a day. It will likely double in a few years.

  • Sharon Wilson, Earthworks:

    This is happening because they developed the technology to frack oil and gas from shale. If they hadn't done that, we would have converted to clean energy a long time ago.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Sharon Wilson is an environmental activist who is bearing witness to an ongoing greenhouse gas disaster in the Permian Basin.

    When oil rises to the surface under pressure, it comes with a witches' brew of hydrocarbon gases, including methane, also under pressure. Methane traps about 80 times more heat during a 20-year lifetime than carbon dioxide. It is responsible for about 30 percent of human-caused global warming. Permian is the largest methane emitting oil and gas basin in the U.S.

    So, to put this into perspective, there are global consequences to this.

  • Sharon Wilson:

    Absolutely. I mean, we are harming the entire planet and every person and every living thing on it by what we are doing here in Texas. And we call this a climate bomb.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It is an invisible, odorless bomb. Working with the nonprofit Earthworks, Sharon is using a $100,000 camera that gives her superpower vision.

  • Sharon Wilson:

    So, that movement there, that is all pollution.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The camera records the spectral signature of hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds. So what looks like this in visible light becomes this in Sharon's viewfinder.

  • SHARON WILSON:

    I am seeing a lot of methane blasting out from that flare that is barely lit.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Even though methane is the primary ingredient of natural gas, here in the Permian Basin, it's mostly considered waste.

    To reduce methane emissions, operators are supposed to burn it in flare stacks like these. This converts methane, CH4, into CO2, reducing its impact on the climate crisis. But, frequently, the flare stacks flicker, falter or fail.

  • Sharon Wilson:

    Unfortunately, this is not usual. There's just way too much methane going into our atmosphere.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But how much? Flying over the Permian Basin with a spectrometer, the nonprofit Carbon Mapper found 1,100 super emitters of methane here.

    The organization is pushing an effort to launch satellites able pinpoint large methane emissions.

    Natasha Miles is also interested in the big picture. She is a professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University. She and colleague Scott Richardson maintain a growing network of monitoring sites outside oil company fence lines to measure methane.

  • Natasha Miles, Pennsylvania State University:

    We have set up five towers where we measure methane concentrations, and then we combine that with weather models to figure out where the emissions are coming from and how that's changing in time.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    State and federal regulators rely on the oil and gas industry to detect and report its own methane emissions. The industry says it has done selective surveys and found the leak occurrence rate is less than 1 percent. But independent researchers dispute that.

  • Natasha Miles:

    We have found that, in certain locations, it can be up to five times wrong, five times too low.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    So the industry is underreporting?

  • Natasha Miles:

    Right.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    No surprise to Sharon Wilson.

  • Sharon Wilson:

    So, we are going to need the tripod.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    She took us to an oil and gas production site in Reeves County. The horizontal pipes on top of these tanks are part of a vapor recovery system designed to capture hydrocarbon gases, including methane, to be sold or burned in a flare stack.

    But the thermal image proved beyond doubt that the system is not doing its job.

  • Sharon Wilson:

    Definitely not working. There is just methane coming up everywhere, huge plume, huge plume, massive. And I want you to see it. God.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The air here was thick with the smell of hydrogen sulfide, giving us headaches and nausea. The site is a repeat offender. Sharon has recorded methane emissions here 21 times since April of 2019. She has submitted nine complaints with video evidence to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

    The agency says it has conducted three investigations, and, in February of 2021, fined the company all of $1,875. Ownership of the site changed hands in September of 2021. The new owner says it has substantially reduced emissions. But when Sharon returned here in October, two months after our visit, she recorded a hydrocarbon plume every bit as large as the one we saw.

    The company says that leak has been repaired. And the TCEQ says it is conducting yet another investigation. So why are state regulators seemingly unable to stop these ongoing emissions?

  • Tim Doty, TCHD Consulting LLC:

    It's the Wild West out here, right?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    For nearly 29 years, environmental scientist Tim Doty worked for the TCEQ.

    We met him at an oil production site in Pecos. Again, there is a vapor recovery system here, ostensibly to capture the methane and either burn it or sell it. And, again, there was a huge plume of methane emissions.

    So, does the state regulate methane emissions in any sort of meaningful way?

  • Tim Doty:

    No. Oil and gas industry in the state of Texas and nationwide is basically uncontrolled. It is built on the honor system, right? And some companies can be good, and many of them aren't.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Identifying and locating the owners of some of these facilities can be difficult, so we sent some questions to the American Petroleum Institute, a leading industry trade group.

    While it did not address specific cases, API says the industry "is taking action to detect and reduce methane emissions across the supply chain, supports the direct regulation of methane for new and existing sources, and vows to work with EPA to develop and finalize regulations that further the progress made in reducing emissions."

    At the U.N. climate meeting in Egypt, President Biden announced the long-delayed EPA regulations. The rule aims to ensure that wells are monitored for leaks, allow use of innovative detection technologies, leverage data from remote sensors, and require that flares are properly operated.

    The TCEQ says a decision on whether Texas will submit a plan to adhere to the new EPA rule will be made after it is finalized. Regardless, the federal rule is not enough to satisfy Sharon Wilson.

    What, in your view, is the solution?

  • Sharon Wilson:

    The best available control technology for methane is to keep it in the ground. Never drill that hole in the first place, because, once you drill that hole, that's where it all starts.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    One person, one camera, determined to insure the methane problem does not remain invisible. And so she keeps driving down the long lonely road to zero.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I am Miles O'Brien near Pecos, Texas.

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