As Sharon Wilson stopped at the BP site in Texas last June, production tanks towered over windblown grass about 60 miles southeast of San Antonio. Cows and pumpjacks lined the roadsides.
All seemed placid. But when Wilson turned on a high-tech video camera, an ominous image became visible: a long, black plume poured from a flare pipe. His camera, designed to detect hydrocarbons, had revealed what appeared to be a stream of methane – a potent climate-warming gas, gushing from the very equipment meant to prevent such emissions.
“It’s very disheartening and depressing, but mostly it’s infuriating,” said Wilson, a field advocate for Earthworks, which promotes alternatives to fossil fuels. “Our government is not taking the steps that need to be taken.”
Methane is the main ingredient of natural gas. Measured over a 20-year period, scientists say it contains about 80 times the global warming power of carbon dioxide. And according to the International Energy Agency, methane is responsible for about 30% of global warming that has occurred since the industrial revolution. Aerial surveys have documented huge amounts of methane emanating from oil and gas fields in the United States and beyond.
It’s a problem the Biden administration has sought to tackle in its recently enacted Cut Inflation Act. One of the provisions of the law threatens fines of up to $1,500 per ton of methane released, to be imposed on the worst polluters. Perhaps more importantly, the law provides $1.55 billion in funding for companies to upgrade equipment to more effectively contain emissions — equipment that could, in theory, help operators avoid fines.
Yet some of the best emissions reduction equipment is already installed on oil and gas infrastructure, including at the BP site that Wilson filmed. And critics say that equipment fails to capture much of the methane and casts doubt on the ability of the Biden plan to fix the problem.
What Wilson saw at the BP site was an extinguished flare. This is one of the types of equipment the EPA recommends companies consider installing to reduce methane emissions. Resembling a large pipe, a torch is meant to burn the methane before it can escape. Flames usually burn from the top of flares.
But in this case, the flame had gone out, so methane was leaking from the pipe. The torch mechanisms are supposed to alert the operator if it stops working. That didn’t happen in this case, according to a report by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
“The energy companies have made commitments, but I have to tell you that I haven’t seen anything from a practical standpoint that makes me believe there is a reality to the reductions on the ground,” Tim Doty said. , an environmental scientist and former quality inspector for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. “Maybe they are progressing, but are they progressing enough to slow climate change? I do not think so.”
The spewing methane Wilson detected was among more than a dozen such scenes she documented over three days in the Eagle Ford Shale, an oil and gas field in South Texas. Methane leaked from unlit or broken flares, storage tanks, vapor recovery units and compressors. She found him escaping at sites owned by companies including BP and Marathon Oil, both of which have pledged to reduce methane emissions.
“They have the technology, but for some reason if they don’t maintain it, if the technology doesn’t work, I don’t know, but if it doesn’t work,” Wilson said.
BP did not respond to questions about the methane leaks documented by Wilson. The company says it plans to eliminate routine flaring in US land operations by 2025 and advocates for policies to reduce methane emissions.
Marathon Oil denied breaching any regulations. A spokeswoman said the company recognizes the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the global climate and prioritizes environmental concerns.
Sometimes methane escapes because equipment designed to contain it has not been properly calibrated or maintained. Emissions are not immediately stopped once new equipment is installed. Companies still need to invest in proper system design and ongoing equipment monitoring and maintenance. It takes money and people, which experts say many companies overlook.
The Biden administration has not yet specified what types of equipment it recommends. But the EPA, which is working with the administration on the law’s methane reduction program, has recommended technologies to reduce methane emissions. Whether this equipment actually succeeds in limiting emissions is an open question.
“There are lots of technologies out there, but the reality on the ground is that it just doesn’t work,” Doty said.
This is often also the case with another type of equipment recommended by the EPA: vapor recovery units. These are systems of pipes and seals that are supposed to capture methane before it can escape from the tanks. In Doty’s fieldwork, which spans decades, he estimates he’s seen vapor recovery units leak some methane or other hydrocarbons 75% to 85% of the time.
And hydrocarbons like methane, because they are corrosive, inevitably degrade the tanks, pipes and equipment supposed to contain them.
“It’s all going to be leak prone – that’s how it is,” said Coyne Gibson, who spent about two decades as an engineer inspecting oil and gas equipment. “It’s mechanics. And there’s really no way to avoid it.
One of the reasons it is difficult for the industry to control methane emissions is that many leaks come from the country’s extensive gas distribution network. Millions of kilometers of pipelines are nearly impossible to monitor completely. Additionally, Gibson said, pipelines are often buried, making leaks harder to detect.
This gas distribution network, which includes pipelines and compressor stations, is responsible for most methane emissions in the energy sector, said Antoine Halff, chief analyst at Kayrros, an analysis company. energy. Using satellite data, Kayrros identified a compressor station – which adjusts gas pressure to move it through pipelines – that emitted methane continuously for eight days.
“It’s way too common,” Halff said.
Some large companies have invested in infrared cameras, like Wilson’s, which can detect methane leaks in facilities. They use them on the ground, or on drones or planes.
The process can help operators find and repair leaks. But this is usually only done periodically, with cameras not running continuously. Every few months, some companies will send a team with an infrared camera to check for leaks from the ground or from a helicopter.
Most of the time, however, there is no such monitoring. Leaks or even planned releases of methane can occur during these times, such as when companies open up a section of pipeline to release methane before making repairs. The personnel it would take to continuously inspect the country’s 3 million kilometers of gas pipelines would likely be prohibitively expensive.
Faulty flares like the one found by Wilson are also a major contributor to methane pollution. Flaring is supposed to burn 98% of the methane that would otherwise be blasted directly into the atmosphere. But whether due to malfunctions or poor design, flares release five times that amount of methane in the atmosphere, according to a study by the University of Michigan.
“Flares often go out,” said David Lyon, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “They’ll be extinguished and exhaust all the gas. Or they just won’t burn the gas properly. And often I think operators aren’t aware that the torch is extinguished.
The Environmental Protection Agency is drafting methane reduction rules that will further detail what would be required of businesses from 2024 under the Inflation Reduction Act.
The American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s leading lobby group, says methane emissions intensity has fallen nearly 60% in major producing regions across the country between 2011 and 2020. But companies base their reported methane emissions on estimates, not actual measurements, another custom the Cut Inflation Act seeks to change.
Climatologists have shown, using satellite data, that methane emissions are often two or three times higher than companies have reported. Under the new law, companies would have to actually measure and report their methane emissions. But it’s still unclear how such a measurement program would work.
“We and many others in this field, time and time again, have shown the huge gap between country and company reporting and what can actually be detected,” Halff said.
Even so, he thinks there is reason to hope the methane provisions of the Cut Inflation Act will make a difference.
“Emissions continue to rise,” he said. “We are going in the wrong direction…but the potential, the conditions, to change course seem to be there.”
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