The planet-warming effects behind oil production in West Texas
Over a 100-year period, the EPA says, methane's impact on climate change can be 25-times greater than carbon dioxide's.
There are many ways that Texas leads the country--one of them is how much methane we release into the atmosphere, a invisible heat-trapping gas that's still managing to catch eyes.
A lot of that methane comes from West Texas. So, we went there to find out how bad the problem is and what are some of the solutions.
When it comes to gases that trap in the sun's heat, carbon dioxide is the biggie. Our cars and power plants release massive amounts of it. While we emit far less methane, it is far more effective at trapping heat. Over a 100-year period, the EPA says, methane's impact on climate change can be 25-times greater than carbon dioxide's.
Schuyler Wight is a rancher in Imperial, about an hour south of Odessa. And he's got a problem on his land: old, leaky oil wells.
An orphan well is an old well that needs to be plugged to keep oil, methane and other gases from coming to the surface but there's no longer an owner on record to take responsibility. Schuyler estimates, on his property, there are 100 orphan wells.
The worst one on his property is bubbling up oil with a heavy stink of gas.
“It's killing everything around here and it's poison,” he said. “I mean, would you want to eat beef that comes from cattle and drink this, crap like that? That's how I make my living,” Schuyler added.
There’s another major orphan well problem on a neighboring ranch. It’s bubbling up with so much underground water a new lake has formed. But not the kind of lake you'd ever want to swim in. Air and water samples found some gases here at potentially lethal levels.
How bad is the problem? A study from McGill University suggests abandoned oil and gas wells may be a Top 10 source of methane emissions in the U.S.
“Why is it that I have to spend my time and money and energy plugging your wells?” Schuyler recently said when speaking at the public meeting of the Texas Railroad Commission.
When no operator can be found, plugging orphan wells is the responsibility of the Texas Railroad Commission. The Commission is about to get $343 million dollars in federal infrastructure funds. The state’s inventory includes about 7,500 orphan wells and the Commission estimates the new funds will pay to address 5,000 of them.
But Schuyler has told the commissioners he's already spent $220,000 of his own money plugging wells that he says are the state's responsibility. The Commission says it is “investigating to positively identify the well on the property of Schuyler Wight.”
While orphan wells are a problem we inherited from long ago, modern oil and gas wells, being drilled today, are a far larger source of methane -- 25 times larger.
Sharon Wilson is an environmentalist with the non-profit Earthworks. She's documenting methane emissions released into the atmosphere from the Permian Basin. Her specialized camera, also used by regulators and industry, can see methane.
“Every one of these is emitting,” Wilson says while pointing her camera at oil field equipment. She frequently files complaints with state regulators on what she finds.
One way to make methane less potent is equipment that burns it -- or flares it. But a NASA study of the Permian Basin found half of the biggest sources of methane emissions "are likely to be malfunctioning oilfield equipment"
She showed us one particular flare that was flickering off and on. The camera shows it was burning some gas, but a cloud of methane was also visible as it escaped without ever being combusted by the flare.
The EPA is proposing new rules on the oil and gas industry to reduce methane emissions. These would improve leak detection-and-repair and enhance the monitoring-of and repair-of flare malfunctions.
“So, even when they have the latest technologies, they don't work consistently or at all. We're headed the wrong way really fast because methane is a super pollutant for the climate,” Wilson said.
Are there other ways to reduce the amount of flaring and venting in the Permian Basin?
Stuart MacDonald is the Director of Energy Land Management at the University of Texas - Permian Basin in Odessa who also consults for the oil and gas industry.
“The number-one way to stop flaring and stop venting is to come up with a way to get the gas to market,” he said. “And I'm talking about pipelines that get it to places that we could use it. That's been a problem in the oil and gas industry since the twenties and thirties,” he added.
More than 30% of US oil and gas production comes from the Permian. But a study in the journal Science Advances found 3.7% of what's extracted is simply wasted.
“Midland, Odessa, for example, does not need more natural gas, but much of the world does. But we don't have a way to get it there,” said MacDonald. “It's horrible that we waste it because once it's gone, it's gone,” he said.
The world's thirst for oil and gas is what drives climate change. On this trip, I learned the way we waste energy makes the problem worse. And solutions like cleaning environmental damage, regulating emissions or building more pipelines don't seem to be a match for the scope of the problem.