When Sharon Wilson pulled up at BP’s Texas site last June, production tanks loomed over the windblown grass about 60 miles southeast of San Antonio. Cows and pumpjacks lined the roadsides.
Everyone looked calm. But when Wilson turned on a high-tech video camera, a disturbing image emerged: a long black cloud pouring out of a flare. Their camera, designed to detect hydrocarbons, had apparently spotted a stream of methane – a powerful climate-warming gas emanating from the very equipment designed to prevent such emissions.
“It’s very disheartening and depressing, but mostly it’s infuriating,” said Wilson, a field advocate for Earthworks, which promotes alternatives to fossil fuels. “Our government is not taking the necessary measures.”
Methane is the main component of natural gas. Measured over a 20-year period, scientists say, it has about 80 times the global warming power of carbon dioxide. And according to the International Energy Agency, methane is responsible for around 30% of global warming since the industrial revolution. Aerial photographs have documented vast amounts of methane venting from oil and gas fields across the United States and beyond.
It’s a problem that the Biden administration has attempted to address in its recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act. One of the provisions of the law provides for fines of up to $1,500 per tonne of methane released, imposed on the worst polluters. Perhaps most importantly, the law provides $1.55 billion in funding for companies to upgrade devices to curb emissions more effectively — devices that could theoretically help operators avoid fines.
However, some of the best emission reduction equipment is already installed in oil and gas infrastructure, including the BP site filmed by Wilson. And critics say such devices fail to capture much of the methane, raising doubts as to whether the Biden plan would go far to fix the problem.
What Wilson saw at the BP site was an unlit flare. It’s among the types of equipment that the EPA recommends companies consider installing to reduce methane emissions. A flare resembles a tall pipe and is designed to burn off methane before it can escape. Flames typically burn from the top of the torches.
But in this case, the flame had gone out, so methane was pouring out of the tube. The torch’s mechanisms are designed to warn the operator when it has stopped working. That didn’t happen in this case, according to a report by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
“Energy companies have made pledges, but I have to tell you, from a practical standpoint, I haven’t seen anything that leads me to believe reductions on the ground are real,” said Tim Doty, environmental scientist and former air quality inspector for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality . “Maybe they are making progress, but are they making enough progress to slow climate change? I do not think so.”
The methane leak that Wilson spotted was one of more than a dozen such scenes that she documented over three days in the Eagle Ford Shale, an oil and gas field in south Texas. The methane poured from unlit or broken flares, storage tanks, vapor recovery units, and compressors. She found it at the sites of companies like BP and Marathon Oil, both of which have pledged to reduce methane emissions.
“They have the technology, but for some reason I don’t know if they don’t maintain it, if the technology doesn’t work, but if it doesn’t work,” Wilson said.
BP did not respond to questions about the methane leaks documented by Wilson. The company plans to eliminate routine flaring from US shore operations by 2025 and is committed to taking action to reduce methane emissions.
Marathon Oil denied breaking any regulations. A spokeswoman said the company recognizes the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the global climate and prioritizes concern for the environment.
Sometimes methane escapes because the equipment designed for it has not been properly calibrated or maintained. Emissions do not stop immediately once new equipment is installed. Organizations must continue to invest in proper system design and continuous equipment monitoring and maintenance. This requires money and staff, which experts say many companies neglect.
The Biden administration has not yet specified what types of gear it recommends. But the EPA, which works with the government on the statutory methane reduction program, has recommended technologies to reduce methane emissions. Whether these devices actually manage to limit emissions is an open question.
“There are many technologies out there, but the reality in the field is that they just don’t work,” Doty said.
This is also often the case with another type of equipment that the EPA recommends: vapor recovery units. These are systems of pipes and seals designed to capture methane before it can escape from tanks. In Doty’s fieldwork spanning decades, he estimates that he’s seen vapor recovery plants leak some amount of methane or other hydrocarbons 75% to 85% of the time.
And hydrocarbons like methane, because they’re corrosive, inevitably degrade the tanks, pipes, and equipment they’re designed to contain.
“All this stuff is going to be prone to leaks — that’s just the way it is,” said Coyne Gibson, who has been an engineer inspecting oil and gas facilities for about two decades. “It’s mechanics. And there’s really no way to avoid it.”
One reason the industry has a hard time controlling methane emissions is that many leaks come from the country’s vast gas distribution grid. Millions of kilometers of pipelines are almost impossible to fully monitor. Additionally, Gibson said, pipelines are often buried, making leak detection difficult.
This gas distribution network, which includes pipelines and compressor stations, is responsible for most of the methane emissions in the energy industry, said Antoine Halff, chief analyst at Kayrros, an energy analysis firm. Using satellite data, Kayrros identified a compressor station – which adjusts the gas pressure to transport it through pipelines – that has continuously been emitting methane for eight days.
“It’s way too common,” Halff said.
Some large companies have invested in infrared cameras like Wilson’s, which can detect methane leaks in plants. They use them on the ground, in drones or in airplanes.
The process can help operators find and fix leaks. But it’s usually done intermittently, with cameras not running continuously. Some companies send a team with an infrared camera every few months to search for leaks from the ground or a helicopter.
Most of the time, however, there is no such monitoring. Leaks or even planned methane releases can occur during these periods, for example if companies open a pipeline section to release methane before repairs. The staffing that would be required to continuously monitor the country’s 3 million miles of natural gas pipelines would likely be prohibitively expensive.
Defective flares like the one found by Wilson are also major contributors to methane pollution. Flaring is designed to burn 98% of the methane that would otherwise shoot straight into the atmosphere. But whether due to malfunction or poor design, flares release five times the amount of methane into the atmosphere, according to a University of Michigan study.
“Torches often go out,” said David Lyon, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “They will be unlit and vent all the gas. Or they just don’t burn the gas properly. So that’s a really big source of methane. And often I think the operators don’t know the torch is out.”
The Environmental Protection Agency is writing methane reduction rules that detail what will be required of companies beginning in 2024 under the Inflation Reduction Act.
The American Petroleum Institute, the main lobby group for the oil and gas industry, says methane emissions intensity in the country’s key producing regions fell by nearly 60 percent from 2011 to 2020. But companies base their reported methane emissions on estimates, not actual measurements. another custom that the Inflation Reduction Act seeks to change.
Using satellite data, climate scientists have shown that methane emissions are often two or three times higher than those reported by companies. Under the new law, companies would actually have to measure and report their methane emissions. However, it is still unclear how such a measurement program would work.
“We, and many others in this space, have consistently highlighted the huge gap between what countries and companies are reporting and what can actually be detected,” Halff said.
Still, he says there’s reason to hope that the methane provisions in the Anti-Inflation Act will make a difference.
“Emissions continue to rise,” he said. “We’re moving in the wrong direction … but the potential, the conditions to change course seem to be here.”