Methane leaks: Unregulated climate change accelerators
LENORAH, Texas — To the naked eye, the Mako Compressor Station outside the dusty West Texas crossroads of Lenorah appears unremarkable, similar to tens of thousands of oil and gas operations scattered throughout the oil-rich Permian Basin.
What’s not visible through the chain-link fence is the plume of invisible gas, primarily methane, billowing from the gleaming white storage tanks up into the cloudless blue sky.
The Mako station, owned by a subsidiary of West Texas Gas Inc., was observed releasing an estimated 870 kilograms of methane — an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere each hour. That’s the equivalent of burning seven tanker trucks full of gasoline every day.
But Mako’s outsized emissions aren’t illegal, or even regulated. And it was only one of 533 methane “super emitters” detected during a 2021 aerial survey of the Permian conducted by Carbon Mapper, a partnership of university researchers and NASA.
The group documented massive amounts of methane venting into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations across the Permian, a 250-mile-wide, bone-dry expanse along the Texas-New Mexico border. Hundreds of those sites were seen spewing the gas with ongoing leaks, gushers going unfixed.
“We see the same sites active from year to year. It’s not just month to month or season to season,” said Riley Duren, a research scientist at the University of Arizona who leads Carbon Mapper.
Methane’s earth-warming power is some 83 times stronger over 20 years than
the carbon dioxide that comes from car tailpipes and power plant smokestacks. Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency have largely failed to regulate the invisible gas. That leaves it up to oil and gas producers — in some cases the very companies who have been fighting regulations — to cut methane emissions on their own.
The methane released by these companies will be disrupting the climate for decades, contributing to more heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and floods. There’s now nearly three times as much methane in the air than there was before industrial times. The year 2021 saw the worst single increase ever.
“Reducing air emissions from the oil and natural gas sector is a top priority for the administration and for EPA,” said Tomas Carbonell, EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for stationary sources. Methane, he added, is “helping drive impacts that communities across the country are already seeing every day, including heat waves and
wildfires and sea level rise.”
But proposed rules to address emissions for most oil and gas sites are still under review, and if implemented will likely face legal challenges.
At an international climate summit in November, the U.S. and more than 100 other countries signed on to a Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. To meet that deadline, the U.S. oil and gas industry would have to reduce emissions at a rate far beyond anything currently seen.
The industry says it is working toward that goal.
“To be able to capture more methane emissions makes sense from a business perspective,” said Frank Macchiarola, a senior vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group. “It’s the product that we ultimately want to bring to market.”
But climate scientists and environmentalists warn the industry’s incremental efforts are nowhere near enough to avoid dire consequences for humanity.