As Sharon Wilson pulled up to the BP site in Texas last June, production tanks towered above the windblown grass roughly 60 miles southeast of San Antonio. Cows and pumpjacks lined the roadsides.
All seemed peaceful. But when Wilson flipped on a high-tech video camera, a disquieting image became visible: A long black plume poured from a flare pipe. Her 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 that is supposed to prevent such emissions.
“It is very depressing and infuriating, but it’s also quite discouraging,” Wilson, who works as a field advocate at Earthworks. Earthworks promotes alternative fuels. “Our government is not taking the action that needs to be taken.”
Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas. Measured over a 20-year period, scientists say, it packs about 80 times the climate-warming power of carbon dioxide. And according to the International Energy Agency, methane is to blame for roughly 30% of the global warming that has occurred since the Industrial Revolution. Aerial surveys have documented huge amounts of methane wafting from oil and gas fields in the United States and beyond. This is a problem that the Biden administration sought to address in its newly enacted Inflation Reduction Act. One of the law’s provisions threatens fines of up to $1,500 per ton of methane released, to be imposed against the worst polluters. Perhaps most crucially, the law provides $1. 55 billion in funding for companies to upgrade equipment to more effectively contain emissions — equipment that could, in theory, help the operators avoid fines.
Yet some of the best equipment for reducing emissions is already installed on oil and gas infrastructure, including at the BP site that Wilson filmed. Critics claim that such equipment fails to capture significant amounts of methane, casting doubts on the Biden plan to address the issue.
What Wilson saw at the BP site was an unlit flare. This is one of the equipment that the EPA suggests companies install to lower methane emissions. A flare looks like a long pipe and is meant to extinguish methane from the atmosphere. Flames typically burn from the top of the flares.
But in this case, the flame had gone out, so methane was pouring from the pipe. If the flare stops working, it is supposed to notify its operator. That didn’t happen in this case, according to a report by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
“Energy companies have made pledges, but I’ve got to tell you, I haven’t seen anything from a practical standpoint that makes me believe there’s any reality to reductions on the ground,” said Tim Doty, an environmental scientist and former air quality inspector for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. They may be making some progress but is that enough to stop climate change from happening? I doubt it Wilson saw the spewing methane in the Eagle Ford Shale oil field, which is located in South Texas. She documented more than 12 such scenes over three days. The methane poured from unlit or broken flares, storage tanks, vapor recovery units and compressors. It was found escaping from sites belonging to Marathon Oil and BP, which both have committed to reducing methane emissions.
“They have the technology, but for some reason, whether they don’t maintain it, whether the technology doesn’t work, I don’t know, but if find it not working,” Wilson said.
BP didn’t respond to queries about Wilson’s methane leaked documents. The company says it plans to eliminate routine flaring in U.S. onshore operations by 2025 and is advocating for policies to reduce methane emissions.
Marathon Oil disputed that it violated any regulations. According to a spokeswoman, Marathon Oil recognizes the effects of global greenhouse gas emissions and places importance on protecting the environment.
Sometimes, methane escapes because the equipment designed to contain it hasn’t been properly calibrated or maintained. Emissions aren’t immediately stopped once new equipment is installed. Still, companies must invest in the proper design of the system as well as continuous monitoring and maintaining it. Experts say that this requires staff and money, something many businesses neglect.
The Biden administration is yet to specify which equipment they recommend. But the EPA, which is working with the administration on the law’s methane reduction program, has recommended technologies for reducing methane emissions. Whether that equipment actually succeeds in capping emissions is an open question.
“There’s lots of technologies, but the reality in the field is it just doesn’t work,” Doty said.
That’s frequently also the case with another type of equipment the EPA recommends: vapor recovery units. These are systems of pipes and seals that are supposed to capture methane before it can escape from tanks. In Doty’s field work, which spans decades, he estimates that he’s seen vapor recovery units leaking some amount of 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 that are supposed to contain them.
“All this stuff is going to be prone to leak — that’s just the way it is,” said Coyne Gibson, who spent about two decades as an engineer inspecting oil and gas equipment. “That’s mechanics. And there’s there’s not really any way to avoid it.”
One reason it’s hard for the industry to control methane emissions is that many leaks come from the nation’s vast gas distribution network. It is nearly impossible to monitor millions of miles of pipelines. What’s more, Gibson said, pipelines are often buried, making leaks harder to detect.
The largest source of methane in the industry is the gas distribution network. This includes compressor stations and pipelines, according to Antoine Halff (chief analyst at Kayrros), an energy analytics firm. Using satellite data, Kayrros identified one compressor station — which adjusts the pressure of gas 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, that can detect methane leaks at facilities. These cameras can be used on ground or in aircrafts and drones.
The process can help operators find and fix leaks. But it’s typically done only periodically, with cameras that don’t run continuously. Every few months, some companies will send a team with an infrared camera to check for leaks from the ground or a helicopter.
Most of the time though, such surveillance is not necessary. Leaks or even planned methane releases can occur during these periods, as when companies open a stretch of pipeline to release methane before doing repairs. The staffing it would take to continuously survey the nation’s 3 million miles of natural gas pipelines would likely be prohibitively expensive.
Malfunctioning flares like the one Wilson found are also a major contributor to methane pollution. Flaring is supposed to burn off 98% of the methane that would otherwise shoot directly into the atmosphere. According to University of Michigan research, flares release five times as much methane directly into the atmosphere.
“Flares frequently go out,” David Lyon, senior scientist at Environmental Defense Fund. “They’ll be unlit and venting all the gas. They may not properly burn the gas. So that’s that’s a really big source of methane. And often I think the operators are not aware that the flare’s out.”
The Environmental Protection Agency is writing rules on methane reduction that will further detail what would be required of companies starting in 2024 under the Inflation Reduction Act.
The American Petroleum Institute, the main lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, says methane emissions intensity declined by nearly 60 percent across the nation’s major producing regions from 2011 to 2020. Companies report methane emissions based on estimated estimates and not actual measurements. This is another habit that the Inflation Reduction Act aims to end.
Climate scientists used satellite data to show that companies report methane emissions up to three-and-a half times higher than what they actually measured. 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.
“Us and many others in this field, over and over again, have shown the huge gap between reporting by countries and companies and what can actually be detected,” Halff said.
Even so, he thinks there’s reason to hope that the methane provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act will make some difference.
“Emissions keep going up,” he said. “We’re moving in the wrong direction…but the potential, the conditions, to change course seem to be here.”
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