Air pollution could be on the decline in the Permian Basin – one of the most active oil and gas plays in the world situated in southeast New Mexico and West Texas.
Methane is a primary component of the natural gas extracted in the Permian and is often released when the infrastructure is not present to get the gas to market.
Environmentalist have long criticized the oil and gas industry for the release of methane and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) through the process of venting the gas or burning it off during flaring.
But new research published this week by Energy in Depth – a project devised by the Independent Petroleum Association of America showed declines in two of the most active oil and gas basins in America.
The study cited data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program from 2018, along with the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) 2019 Drilling Productivity Report.
Greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. fell to the lowest levels since 1992, read the report, due to increased natural gas consumption.
Methane emissions fell by 24 percent for onshore U.S. oil and gas development, while oil production grew by 65 percent and natural gas by 19 percent from 2011 to 2017, read the report.
Permian vs. Appalachian
In the Permian Basin, which the report described as the “world’s top producing oilfield” annual methane emissions fell from 4.8 million metric tons to 4.6, the report read.
Meanwhile, oil and gas production grew from 638.9 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOE), to 1.4 billion BOE, read the report, a growth of 125 percent.
That’s an increase of 125 percent in production between 2011 and 2017.
Records also showed a 57 percent reduction in methane emissions per unit of oil and gas produced.
Ryan Flynn, executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association credited the reductions to technological advances made by the industry, despite attacks from “extreme” opponents.
“Oil and natural gas producers across the Permian Basin continue to make clearly demonstrable progress toward managing methane emissions. Advanced technology and new infrastructure have allowed the environmental footprint per unit of production to shrink even as production has dramatically expanded,” Flynn said.
“Despite the repeated distortions offered by extreme activists, producers are proving that it’s possible to increase production and reduce emissions at the same time.”
But the declining emissions aren’t only in the west.
In the Appalachian Basin in the eastern U.S., spreading from Ohio to Alabama, natural gas production grew by 379 percent from 2011 to 2017, records show, while methane emissions fell from 5.3 million metric tons to 4.7 million.
That meant an 82 percent reduction in methane emissions per unit of oil and gas produced, read the report.
“America’s oil and natural gas producers are working hard to develop America’s own abundant resources in a safe and environmentally sound manner,” said Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
“The federal government’s own data confirms methane emissions have fallen in recent years and are continuing to drop, even as oil and natural gas production has risen.”
Fuller pointed to industry-driven solutions and technological advancements as causing the decrease in natural gas waste.
“As technology has improved, the industry’s processes have become more efficient,” he said. “Responsible energy development has and will continue to play a leading role in making the United States the world leader in greenhouse gas reductions.”
State of New Mexico continues tracking emissions
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), under first-year Cabinet Secretary James Kenney began collecting data last week and studying the environmental impact of oil and gas production in the Permian.
NMED personnel traveled to southeast New Mexico, conducting nearly 100 regulatory inspections at oil and gas facilities to check on their compliance with air quality regulations and permits, read an NMED news release.
Up to a third of methane emissions in the U.S. come from oil and gas production and transmission, the release read.
“Compliance with existing air quality regulations and permits is essential to the regulatory scheme,” Kenney said. “Holding the oil and natural gas industry accountable to these rules and their permits ensures the environment is protected and there is a level playing field among operators.”
Ninety-eight inspections were conducted jointly by NMED’s Air Quality Bureau and the EPA, using forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras to detect potential emissions.
FLIR cameras cannot determine what VOCs, if any, are being emitted or the rate of release.
VOCs are a major component of smog and ground-level ozone, read the release, and can cause irritation in the lungs, while exacerbating diseases such as asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Ozone levels, also a byproduct of oil and gas production, continued to rise in several counties, read the NMED release, including Eddy, Lea, San Juan, Doña Ana and Rio Arriba counties.
NMED and the EPA planned to continue analyzing the data and determining compliance status of the inspected facilities.
Bruce Baizel, energy program director at Earthworks, a Washington D.C-based environmentalist group, commended New Mexico’s new administration for prioritizing the environment amid the recent oil and gas boom in the Permian.
“Today’s announcement by NMED of their unprecedented inspection sweep of oil and gas operations in New Mexico’s Permian basin is a welcome reminder that government is supposed to protect the public interest, not the oil and gas industry’s,” he said.
Earthworks also conducted studies using FLIR cameras and filed numerous complaints with NMED last year against oil and gas facilities throughout Eddy County.
“We have been highly critical of NMED in the past, this is a job well done,” Baizel said. “However, this does not change that New Mexico needs strong methane rules as (New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham) has proposed.
“NMED inspectors likely saw methane and toxic oil and gas air pollution, some in violation of existing regulations, and some that is perfectly legal, but shouldn’t be.”