Mar 14, 2024 - Energy & Environment

Methane emissions are triple government estimates: study

Illustration of a ruler with smoke coming out of the top, like a smokestack.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

An exhaustive survey of about 1 million oil and gas production sites across the U.S. found that methane emissions are, on average, about three times higher than government estimates.

Why it matters: Curbing use of the powerful, short-term warming agent could reduce the severity of near-term climate change.

Zoom in: The study, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, used aerial surveys to detect methane emissions across oil and gas production sites across six regions of the U.S., from New Mexico to Pennsylvania.

  • In total, the study measured 52% of onshore oil and about 30% of gas production.
  • The researchers found that only 0.05 to 1.66% of well sites contribute the majority of well site emissions, and a small number of point sources contribute to midstream emissions too, such as pipelines.

Staggering stat: The emissions counted in the study amount to a loss of about $1 billion in commercial gas value, and when incorporating climate change-related damage, about a $9.3 billion annual social cost, the study found.

  • Between the lines: Riley Duren, the CEO of Carbon Mapper and co-author of the study, told Axios that the methane emissions found during the surveys add up. "The surveyed oil and gas operations in this study contribute over 6 million tons per year of methane emissions, equivalent to the total greenhouse gas emissions from France," he said.
  • The study found the New Mexico section of the Permian Basin leaked the most methane, but that other areas had far lower emission rates.
  • Duren also said that midstream emissions, which come from pipelines, gas processing plants and other sources, "accounted for a significant fraction of the emissions total" across all the areas surveyed.

What they're saying: "This study and others illustrate the risks of relying solely on assumed emission factors and self-reporting to quantify and track methane emissions. In the absence of sustained and transparent monitoring with empirical measurements, many governments and companies are flying blind when it comes to methane accounting," Duren told Axios.

What we're watching: A burgeoning network of methane-hunting satellites, including MethaneSAT, launched last week, may provide emissions transparency and encourage companies to squelch leaks coming from their facilities.

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