A US oil-drilling hot spot is kicking out far more methane than we thought

The measuring aircraft was able to cover almost 100 times more sites than the previous ground survey. Flying over active wells and pipelines in the New Mexico section of the basin, the aircraft detected 1,985 methane plumes over a 15-month period.

In addition to detecting higher-than-expected levels of methane leakage, the survey also identified some mega-emission sites. Only 5% of the plumes discovered by the plane were responsible for more than half of the measured emissions.

The findings add to calls for tighter methane regulations on oil and gas producers. At the time this data was collected, from 2018 to 2020, oil production was growing rapidly, and regulations in this area were looser than they are today. New Mexico recently passed a law banning the regular release of excess natural gas. John Goldstein, senior policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund, says other federal oil-producing states, such as Texas, still need strong federal policies to reduce emissions.

In any case, the new findings show how comprehensive surveys can shed light on methane emissions, which are often poorly understood even in large oil and gas basins such as Permian. As governments continue to target emissions, identifying problem areas can be a useful first step.

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