METHANE HUNTERS
Bloomberg Businessweek|August 23, 2021
SCIENTISTS AND ACTIVISTS ARE RACING TO FIND GLOBE-WARMING LEAKS IN AMERICA’S LARGEST OIL FIELD—AND GET THEM PLUGGED BEFORE THEY COOK THE PLANET FURTHER
ZACHARY R. MIDER

FIVE HUNDRED MILES ABOVE THE Earth’s surface, the Copernicus Sentinel-5 Precursor, a satellite about the size of a pickup truck, has been circling the planet for four years, taking pictures of the atmosphere below. The satellite’s infrared sensor can see things humans can’t, and in 2019, Yuzhong Zhang, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, got a look at some of its first readings.

Zhang was interested in methane, an invisible, odorless gas. Although carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the principal cause of global warming, methane has many times carbon’s warming power and is thought to be responsible for about a quarter of the increase in global temperatures caused by humans. When Zhang laid the satellite readings over a map of the U.S., the biggest concentration of the gas showed up as a red splotch over a 150-mile-wide swath of Texas and New Mexico.

The postdoc loaded the readings into a supercomputer to calculate what it would take to form that pattern. A few days later he had an answer. Beneath the splotch, Zhang discovered, 2.9 million metric tons of methane were pouring into the sky each year. By one measure, that cloud of gas is contributing as much to global warming as Florida—every power plant, motorboat, and minivan in the state.

Zhang, now at Westlake University in Hangzhou, China, calls it the “Permian methane anomaly.” The anomaly lies directly atop the Permian Basin, one of the most bountiful oil-producing regions in the world. Wells there churn out less-profitable natural gas alongside petroleum, and natural gas is mostly methane. Zhang’s research demonstrated that a surprising amount of that gas, more than twice what the U.S. government has estimated, is just spilling into the air unburned. Imagine that someone turned all the knobs on a stove without lighting a flame. Now imagine 400,000 stoves scattered across the Southwest, hissing day and night, cooking nothing but the planet itself.

Identifying and plugging these leaks could do more to slow climate change than almost any other single measure. Unlike carbon, methane breaks down relatively quickly in the atmosphere. That means efforts to curtail it can pay off within a generation. According to one recent estimate, almost one-third of the warming expected in the next few decades could be avoided by reducing human-caused methane emissions, without having to invent new technology or cut consumption. Some of that would come from cleaning up other sources, such as landfills and cattle feedlots. (Cow burps are full of methane.) But oil and gas fields are the most obvious places to start, because they offer the biggest potential reductions at the cheapest cost.

Only in the past few years has the urgency of the methane problem come into focus, partly because of new technology and scientific research that’s uncovering leaks from pipelines in Russia to old wells in West Virginia. The latest assessment, published on Aug. 9 by United Nations-backed scientists, says “strong, rapid, and sustained reductions” in these emissions are key to meeting climate goals. In the U.S., regulation hasn’t kept up. In many cases, energy producers and pipeline operators are free to spew methane into the air without running afoul of any law.

In lieu of regulation, nonprofit groups and activists are acting as self-appointed private eyes, running their own Permian monitoring programs and pressuring companies directly. Gas markets are responding, too. Last year a $7 billion contract to send Permian liquefied natural gas to France collapsed over concerns about the greenhouse gas footprint. Lenders and investors are also pushing for action. Now oil companies are launching their own drones, airplanes, and satellites in the service of mostly voluntary efforts to find the spills and stop them.

It’s unclear how far private and voluntary actions will go. One obstacle is the sheer size of the Permian, a sparsely populated scrubland where spills from open hatches, equipment malfunctions, and the like can continue for days before anyone notices. Another is the jumble of companies and wells. Even the Sentinel-5P’s powerful sensor has trouble identifying individual leaks. Spills are so large and numerous that, seen from space, they merge into one indistinguishable mass.

UP CLOSE, THE PERMIAN IS FLAT AND dry. Cows wander across lonely plains of mesquite, and rusting pump jacks dot the horizon. Wildcatters have been chasing oil here for a century, but nothing in the past compares to the frenzy that gripped the region about six years ago.

That’s when Congress ended a longtime ban on oil exports. Domestic refineries can’t handle the sheer volume of light sweet crude produced in the Permian. But with the law change, overseas customers could take it. And by that time, advances in extraction techniques, including horizontal drilling and fracking, had already opened up oil reserves in previously inaccessible shale rock. Money poured in from oil majors and private equity funds. More than half the nation’s drill rigs were mobilized. Drilling rights neared $100,000 an acre, and hotels in Midland, Texas, the commercial hub of the oil patch, started charging Manhattan prices.

The landscape was transformed. Clusters of cylindrical oil tanks appeared everywhere, along with rectangular ponds as big as football fields holding the water needed for fracking. Camps for thousands of itinerant workers were laid out with military precision.

A few days after the ban was lifted, on Christmas Eve 2015, drillers broke ground on a new well whose story is a microcosm of the Permian. State Pacific 55-T2-8X17, as the site is known, sits on a stretch of rangeland near the Pecos River in Texas’ Loving County (population 169). Two months later, it was complete: a wellhead and six storage tanks squatting on a rectangle of bare earth.

The money behind State Pacific came from BHP Group, an Australian mining colossus that spent big to drill faster than rivals. State Pacific alone brought forth 166,000 barrels of oil and other hydrocarbon liquids in its first year, as well as 620 million cubic feet of gas.

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