Read this investigation into major methane leaks in Texas and New Mexico

Scientists and journalists are on the hunt for methane spewing from the oil and gas infrastructure in the US. The leaking methane is invisible to the naked eye, but a recent study by The Associated Press — with help from NASA and other researchers — helps uncover the enormity of the problem.

In the Permian Basin, a major oil and gas-producing area spanning Texas and New Mexico, they uncovered hundreds of “super-emissive” sites spewing methane. Methane is the primary component of “natural gas” and is even more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere. Carbon Mapper — the group of academic and nonprofit researchers working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — used some nifty technology to discover 533 of those super-polluting sites. That data was the starting point for good old-fashioned shoe leather reporting by The Associated Presswhich traced the responsible companies using public records.

That investigation revealed a relatively small group of companies that released an enormous amount of pollution with impunity. Ten companies alone owned at least 164 of the super-emitting sites. For example, a subsidiary of West Texas Gas owns a natural gas compressor station called Mako that was caught leaking 870 kilograms of methane per hour, causing as much climate pollution as lighting seven tanker trucks full of gasoline a day.

If it weren’t for that research and reporting, those methane emissions would likely have continued to creep past regulators. They saw 12 times more methane leaks at Mako than what the company operating the site reported for its operations across the region in 2020.

The oil and gas industry in the Permian Basin consistently under-reports or doesn’t report methane emissions at all, according to the AP analysis. AP found that more than 140 super-emitting sites emitted so much methane that their operators were likely instructed to report that pollution to the Environmental Protection Agency — but the vast majority of companies didn’t.

Ultimately, that means the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting program underestimates how much pollution is released into the atmosphere, which could hinder efforts to understand how much global warming we’re facing, as well as what we need to do to adapt. and prevent a more catastrophic climate change. Sealing those leaks is an obvious first step to take once they are noticed.

So the race has begun to deploy new technology that can capture what’s really going on at all these leaking oil and gas sites. Carbon Mappers used an infrared imaging spectrometer as they flew high over the Permian Basin to spot methane plumes they couldn’t otherwise see. The spectrometer picks up the unique wavelengths in light that signal the presence of methane.

In the future, researchers hope to get an even better view from space. Next year, Carbon Mappers hopes to launch two demonstration satellites for tracking methane. The plan is to launch a larger constellation of satellites by 2025 that can detect 80 percent of global methane and CO2 emitters.

It’s part of a wider movement to get a handle on methane emissions from human activities, which are responsible for about a third of the global warming we have today. A similar remote sensing effort, called MethaneSAT, is set to launch later this year. There are also more basic volunteer efforts on the ground, using spectrometers mounted on vehicles.

This week, the EPA also announced that it plans to use infrared cameras to fly helicopters over the Permian Basin to find large emitters of methane. “The flyovers are vital in identifying which facilities are responsible for the majority of these emissions and therefore where reductions are most urgently needed,” Earthea Nance, the EPA administrator for the region, said in a press release.

The agency is still working on new rules to limit methane emissions — a process previously suspended by the Trump administration. But last year, the US became one of more than 100 countries to sign a Global Methane Pledge to cut methane emissions by 30 percent this decade.

Those goals make it all the more important to take stock of the current magnitude of the methane leak problem. To see what The Associated Press found in the Permian Basin, you can read the whole story here. It comes with some really cool, yet alarming, photos and videos showing plumes of methane that our eyes can’t see without special tools.

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