Permian Oil And Gas Methane Emissions Are Triple EPA Estimates. What Does That Mean For Colorado’s Efforts?

Oil Boom New Mexico
Charlie Riedel/AP
Pumpjacks work in a field in the Permian Basin near Lovington, N.M., April 24, 2015.

New research from the Environmental Defense Fund on the nation’s largest methane-emitting basin in Texas and New Mexico could have important implications for Colorado.

EDF, along with Boulder-based Scientific Aviation, launched PermianMAP to measure emissions across the basin. Preliminary results show methane emissions three times greater than estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency. 

“I think what the Permian Basin Project is telling us is that we need to do a much better job quantifying just how serious, dramatic this problem is,” said Dan Grossman, senior director of state advocacy for EDF's energy program. “Regulators need to wake up and treat it as such.”

EDF plans to submit its findings to peer-reviewed research journals. Hundreds of measurements were taken from the ground and air between October 2019 to March 2020.

Colorado has one of the strictest methane capture rules in the country that limits leaks from equipment. Even so, an investigation by CPR in 2019 found the state's ability to measure overall methane levels in the air is flawed.

Grossman said the Texas findings are important for Colorado because many of the leaks came from the process of flaring, where methane is burnt off using a flame and turns into carbon dioxide. Older well sites can also leak methane into the air. 

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association said that it does not think flaring significantly contributed to methane pollution in Colorado

“Colorado producers flared only 0.2% of the gas produced in the state, according to COGCC data from 2019. I can’t speak to what takes place in other states, but Colorado companies keep the product in the pipe. When it comes to a rulemaking on flaring later this year, it’s hard to understand what problem they’re trying to solve?” said Dan Haley, president and chief executive officer of COGA

Colorado’s regulatory body, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission proposed new statewide flaring standards as part of a massive overhaul of oil and gas development. 

"Consistent with its statutory duty to prevent the waste of natural gas, COGCC has regulated flaring for decades,” said commission director Jeff Robbins. “COGCC has proposed for operators to submit Gas Capture Plans as part of their permit applications to ensure that operators capture natural gas and put it to beneficial use, rather than flaring it.” 

This comes at a time when the state is beefing up mobile methane monitoring near well pads, in addition to seeking more money to build out stationary methane monitors.

Editor's note: The title of this story was updated to reflect that total methane emissions in the Permian basin were three times what the EPA measured.