Mar 25, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Study: Methane leaks from U.S. oil-and-gas region worse than estimates

Illustration of a thermometer with a methane molecule as the base.
Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

Methane leaks from a major U.S. oil-and-gas producing region are far higher than prior estimates, new research shows.

Why it matters: Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a powerful planet-warming substance.

  • Leaks in production and transport erode — or could even erase — benefits of much lower CO2 emissions than coal when the fuels are burned for power.

Driving the news: The Stanford-led study in Environmental Science & Technology used sophisticated airborne imaging to analyze leaks on the New Mexico side of the prolific Permian Basin region.

  • The topline finding is a leak rate of over 9% of gas produced (though they also offer a range of estimates).
  • That's "several-fold higher than Environmental Protection Agency estimates and well above those in the published literature," a Stanford summary notes.
  • “It’s worse than we thought by a long shot," co-lead author Evan Sherwin said in a statement, and in an email, he notes that's far above the amount that nullifies the climate advantage over coal.

How it works: The survey involved over 100 flights between 2018-2020, covering roughly 14,000 square miles, over 26,000 wells and thousands of miles of pipelines, per the study and a Stanford summary.

Yes, but: One bright spot is that a relatively small number of "super-emitter" sites have an outsized impact on the region's total emissions, with less than 4% comprising over half the total.

  • "Once leaks are identified, shutting them down is often an inexpensive and straightforward fix," the summary notes.
  • It also comes as oil-and-gas producers have been boosting focus on curbing methane emissions.
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