Deep in the Heart of Texas… Methane is Leaking Every Day

In new footage captured just weeks ago, an ominous cloud of what looks like black smoke seeps from a pump jack deep in the heart of a Texas oil field. But there are no fire trucks rushing to the scene. No first responders in hazmat suits scrambling to uncover the source of this relentless dark cloud. This is because that black smoke depicted is actually methane, an invisible but dangerous climate pollutant.

If this scene looks familiar, it’s because not long ago, footage of a major methane gas leak in Southern California also made international headlines. That leak has since been plugged, but as the new infrared footage released today reveals, every single day methane continues to leak in massive quantities from oil and gas facilities across the country and here in Texas.

This is a big problem — methane is responsible for about a quarter of today’s global warming, a statistic that’s hard to ignore coming off the hottest year on record. Not only that, methane escapes with other harmful pollutants that impact health and air quality. It doesn’t take a doctor to understand that the more harmful pollutants we pump into the atmosphere, the more we increase our chances of developing health problems. And, methane pollution, at its core, is wasted energy. Because natural gas essentially is methane, pumping it or burning it into the air is no different than throwing money away.

An Everyday Problem

The Southern California gas leak produced nearly 100,000 tons of methane pollution. Each year, Texas producers report leaking nearly 10 times that amount, and EPA estimates oil and gas infrastructure across the country produces nearly 100 times more.

The latest data from the Environmental Protection agency estimates that, nationwide, industry’s methane emissions are nearly 30 percent higher than previously thought. And even that’s likely to be a significant underestimate — especially in Texas where a recent study found methane levels may be up to 90 percent higher than EPA estimates in some places.

What makes this particularly egregious is that methane emissions are a problem with a relatively straightforward solution. A recent analysis found that low-cost technology already exists to help companies reduce 40 percent of their emissions or more. Further, a number of recent scientific studies have revealed that a significant portion of methane emissions can be attributed to what scientists refer to as “super emitters” – a random assortment of polluters that, sometimes because of mechanical failure, sometimes because of user error, can send vast quantities of methane into the atmosphere. The Southern California gas leak was an extreme example of a super emitter, but as the footage indicates, thousands of others still exist. Regularly checking oil and gas infrastructure for these super emitters would allow us to make huge strides in addressing the problem nationally.

A Plan for Action

Fortunately, the United States is poised to act. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed regulations to address methane pollution from all new oil and gas infrastructure. This is certainly a step in the right direction.  But these regulations do not address existing facilities, the hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells across Texas and the country that are spewing massive amounts of pollution right now.

That may be about to change.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced it would expand on the currently proposed regulations and tackle emissions from the vast expanse of existing oil and gas infrastructure. This is a big win for air quality. A number of scientific studies, including a 2013 study by researchers at the University of Texas, found that regulations play an important role in driving methane reductions. Regulating existing sources of methane pollution will be critical if the United States is to reach its goal of reducing 40 to 45 percent of methane emissions over the next decade.

Other energy producing states have acknowledged the crucial role that regulations play in reducing harmful emissions from the oil and gas industry. But unlike those states, Texas regulators chose to sit on their hands. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these new images of methane pollution unfurling across the Texas landscape should be all the proof that Texans need to support regulatory action to cut methane.




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