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April Newsletter

 

Howdy, yall! Here’s what we’ve been up to recently. We were out in the Permian Basin again in March giving tours to the media and documenting the ongoing methane pollution crisis. There is a lot of talk and optimism about the impact of proposed methane regulations and fees along with new methane satellites. So far, global methane emissions have continued to rise despite there being about 20 satellites monitoring methane so while helpful, satellite data will not solve the methane issues. In organizational news, Justin Mikulka joined us in March in the Permian and we have since hired him to manage our communications.

We were featured in Phantom Threat: Fracking, the second episode of the four-part docuseries, a production of Nexus Media News presented in partnership with Peril & Promise.

March in the Permian

We headed to Midland, Texas in mid-March to meet activists Elena Gerebizza and Filippo Taglieri from ReCommon who were on a two week tour of oil and gas production sites in the U.S. They were here to learn about the true impacts of the U.S. oil and gas industry that is producing the natural gas that is showing up in Italy as LNG (liquefied natural gas). We also met journalist Justin Mikulka in Midland who was coming to see the Permian in person after writing about the Permian and methane issues for the past five years.

We brought our visitors to various oil production sites around Midland and Odessa where we saw significant emissions. The timing of this visit coincided with the beginning of negative natural gas prices in the Permian and a six day stretch of dense cloud cover that kept satellites from “seeing” so it wasn’t surprising we saw so much methane being released. We also got to show them a frac sand operation.

 

At Antina Ranch we saw abandoned oil wells which can leak both methane and VOCs into the air — and oil into the groundwater. The ranch is no longer used for cattle as all the groundwater wells formerly used for cattle on the ranch, are now contaminated with benzene.

 

Image:  Evidence of crude oil in a water well at Antina Ranch. Credit: Ramon Holguin

When we visited the Waha processing area, which is the main gathering point for natural gas produced in West Texas, we saw large clouds of emissions over multiple facilities and recorded a blowdown at the Energy Transfer WAHA Gas Processing Plant.

 

As a result of this visit, Sharon compiled reports for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) detailing 26 of the issues we found on our visit.

New Regulations and Satellites

There has been a lot of news this year about the new regulations for methane emissions which include fees for companies with large methane emissions. The launch of the new MethaneSAT satellite has also raised awareness about the issue of methane emissions. While we welcome these efforts to reduce oil and gas methane emissions, it is unlikely that either will have a significant impact on Permian methane emissions.

Texas and other oil producing states are suing the federal government over the proposed methane fees and these legal efforts, even if not successful in overturning the rule, are likely to delay any implementation and enforcement. And while the new satellite will make more data available to the public, there currently is no system in place to use that data to hold the offenders accountable.

We welcome these efforts, but we are not expecting them to deliver the promised results without a very different system for enforcement. Anything will be better than simply relying on oil and gas operators to self-report methane emissions, but without strong enforcement and severe penalties, the new approach is only likely to deliver small improvements in reducing methane emissions in the Permian.

Hannah Brock from CBS7 in Odessa interviewed us about the new regulations.

Negative Gas Prices Spur Climate Crimes

The price for natural gas in the Permian during our visit was negative. This means that not only can producers not cover their costs of producing, capturing and transporting the gas they produce, they would have to pay someone to take it. So it wasn’t surprising to see so much being released into the atmosphere on our trip. That saves them money when the price is negative.

A paper published last year in the journal Atmospheric Science and Physics noted that research showed that two things drove increases in methane emissions in the Permian basin—Low gas prices and new well development. This will continue to be an ongoing issue in the Permian with negative gas prices and the expectations of low gas prices to continue for years. Sharon commented on this with CBS7:

“There’s this perfect storm with the price of gas. They want the oil. The more oil they produce, the more associated gas there’s going to be.”

Hiring Justin Mikulka

After Justin visited us in Texas, we hired him to help us with our communications efforts. Justin previously worked on a plan to address oil and gas methane emissions while a research fellow at the think tank New Consensus, which made him realize that addressing these emissions should be a top priority. Sharon’s work over the years was a big part of educating Justin on what was actually happening in the oil fields and he is eager to help communicate the importance of this work and the urgent need for action to address methane emissions. After visiting with us Justin wrote an article highlighting one of the important things he learned on the trip: most of the methane isn’t from leaks but from intentional releases.

- Till the end of oil

Sharon Wilson

Miguel Escoto