Satellites have revealed the fracking heartland of the US is leaking a powerful greenhouse gas at a record-breaking rate.
The methane escaping from the oil and gas wells of the Permian basin, which straddles Texas and New Mexico, has the potential to warm the atmosphere by almost as much as the carbon dioxide released by all homes in the US annually.
Methane, also known as natural gas, is pumped out of the region’s wells and captured for use, but the satellite analysis has shown they are also inadvertently leaking 3.7 per cent of that gas into the atmosphere.
The leakage rate is more than twice that assumed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, well above the average 1.9 per cent for 11 other major US basins, and higher than that recorded in any US oil and gas field before.
The findings undermine the dominant narrative in the US that its energy sector has become much cleaner in recent years as it switched to burning natural gas instead of coal for power.
“Any emission rate greater than 1 per cent or so is significant in terms of the greenhouse gas consequences of using natural gas. And at 3.5 per cent or 3.7 per cent, natural gas is far worse for the climate than is coal,” says Robert Howarth at Cornell University in New York, who wasn’t involved in the research. Last year, he found oil and gas production in North America was to blame for a puzzling surge in methane levels.
The new research, led by Yuzhong Zhang at Harvard University, analysed state of the art measurements of methane columns in the atmosphere taken over 11 months during 2018 and 2019 by the satellite-based TROPOMI system. Launched in 2017, it started sending back data in 2018 that is much higher resolution than previous surveys and provides daily coverage.
Ritesh Gautam at the US-based Environmental Defense Fund, part of the team behind the study, said the high leakage rates were due to excessive burning and venting of methane to the atmosphere. He says that oil and gas production has grown so fast in the Permian in the past five years that there isn’t enough infrastructure to gather all the methane. “This higher than average leak rate does suggest an opportunity to reduce emissions,” says Gautam.
Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaz5120
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