Extreme Texas Heat Linked to Giant Planet-Warming Methane Releases

A satellite passing over the Permian Basin documented 22 large plumes of unburned natural gas as some critical equipment was forced to shut down due to hot temperatures.

(Bloomberg) — As record-breaking heat buckled pavement and hospitalized hundreds across Texas at the start of summer, another disruption occurred unseen: Operators in the largest US energy basin released hundreds of tons of natural gas into the air as crucial equipment was forced to shut down.

That unleashed a geyser of planet-warming methane, the main component of natural gas, into the atmosphere. The spurt of emissions wasn’t unprecedented; extremes of both hot and cold have wreaked havoc in the Permian Basin in the past.

But this time there was a new witness. As it happens, a new telescope orbiting the Earth captured an unprecedented picture of the climate damage. Known as EMIT, the sensor rides on the underbelly of International Space Station, which zoomed past the field in West Texas and New Mexico on five different days of the heat wave and documented huge clouds of escaping methane gas. The observations, described here for the first time, show how advances in technology are ushering in a new era of accountability.

“You can look down and see what’s really on the ground at the site of a methane plume,” said Robert O. Green, the principal investigator for the EMIT program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “They are like invisible fires that we can’t see, and we need a technology that lets us see them.”

Scientists at the nonprofit Carbon Mapper studied the EMIT data and identified 22 methane plumes during the late June heat wave. The group estimates that together they were gushing at a rate of more than 79 metric tons an hour. That’s about the same short-term global warming impact as 2.8 million idling cars.

Energy policymakers and the oil and gas industry have in recent years zeroed in on curbing methane as a quick and cheap way to slow climate change, given the gas has more than 80 times the potential to heat the planet than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. President Joe Biden recently hosted a methane summit at the White House, and most large energy companies have pledged to reduce emissions by upgrading equipment and revamping procedures. But because the gas can’t be seen or smelled and is usually released in remote locations, it’s hard to know how much progress companies are making on these promises.

The company responsible for the most emissions caught by EMIT’s June flyover was pipeline operator Targa Resources Corp., according to a Bloomberg analysis of the Carbon Mapper data. Targa, which is among the largest gatherers and processors of natural gas in the Permian, was likely responsible for a total of eight of the 22 methane plumes, emitting a combined 46 tons of methane an hour.

The largest plume appears to have gushed from a Targa gas processing plant in Midland County on June 20 and stretched over four miles of arid scrubland. Carbon Mapper estimates it was flowing at a rate of about 15 tons of methane an hour. Targa said it’s not aware of any such release and that equipment logs show the plant was operating normally that day.

In two of the other events, Targa said it was forced to flare gas due to equipment failures, and no unburned gas was released. The company didn’t answer specific questions about other methane clouds traced back to its facilities and said in a statement that it “successfully delivers an average 99% plus of the gas supplied to our system.”

The company added that it believes the Carbon Mapper estimates “regularly and significantly overstate actual emissions.”

Bloomberg’s analysis showed five of the plumes likely came from assets owned by West Texas Gas Inc., a closely held pipeline operator based in Midland. Another four were linked to Earthstone Energy Inc., an oil and gas producer in The Woodlands.

A spokesman for West Texas Gas declined to comment. Earthstone said it had to temporarily burn natural gas at its well sites on June 20 after the heat caused another company’s pipeline system to malfunction, adding that it filed all necessary reports and didn’t have any releases of unburned methane.

The satellite observations reveal only a sliver of all the methane that was released in the basin during this summer’s Texas heat wave. The space station passed by for a few seconds on each of the five days it visited, scanning just a small section of the field each time. Its sensor can detect only the very largest events.

Companies in Texas are required to report large, unauthorized releases of air contaminants to the state Commission on Environmental Quality. This doesn’t include methane, which isn’t a health hazard. But big emissions of unburned natural gas often contain enough regulated pollutants, such as benzene and sulfur dioxide, to require disclosure.

From June 15 to June 29, the period when daily high temperatures in Midland, Texas, reached 100F (38C) or more, companies reported 103 emission events in the basin to the TCEQ. In many of these cases, companies said that high temperatures forced gas compressors to shut down, causing a buildup of pressure in pipeline systems that had to be relieved by dumping gas directly to the air.

You might expect that any gas cloud big enough to be detected from space would have also resulted in a report to state regulators. But you’d be wrong. In fact, only one of the 22 plumes was reported to the TCEQ.

The lack of overlap suggests that official records capture only a fraction of what’s going on in the oilfield — either because they involve routine activities or aren’t large enough to disclose, or because companies don’t even know they are taking place.

As for the one event that a company did report to regulators, Targa disclosed it to the TCEQ only in late July, after Bloomberg asked about it. In the report, Targa said it released gas for 15 hours on June 20 when compressors at a station in Midland County shut down. It declined to comment on the reason for the reporting delay.

Beginning next year, companies in the oil and gas industry will be required by federal law to pay a fee of as much as $1,500 a ton for methane emissions that exceed certain annual thresholds. It’s one of the lesser-known provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, and it ought to push some companies to limit pollution.

At this point, however, the Environmental Protection Agency is still working out a method for determining how much companies emit; it’s particularly tricky to measure emissions like those seen during the June heat wave – large, unpredictable, and intermittent.

The failures during the heat wave show that Texas’s natural-gas infrastructure needs to be better prepared for high temperatures, said Adrian Shelley of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group that has researched the TCEQ reports. “The fossil fuel industry bears a large part of responsibility for anthropogenic climate change,” he said. “It’s something between irony and poetic justice when it’s fossil fuel companies that are having to adapt.”

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