April 23 (UPI) -- Satellite data suggests oil and gas operations across the Permian Basin are responsible for record methane emissions.
Researchers found methane emissions in West Texas and New Mexico were twice as high as those measured by previous surveys of 11 other major U.S. oil and gas regions.
"These are the highest emissions ever measured from a major U.S. oil and gas basin," Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a news release. "There's so much methane escaping from Permian oil and gas operations that it nearly triples the 20-year climate impact of burning the gas they're producing."
Hamburg and his research partners published their analysis this week in the journal Science Advances.
"These findings demonstrate the rapidly growing ability of satellite technology to track emissions like these and to provide the data needed by both companies and regulators to know where emissions reductions are needed," Hamburg said.
The survey of Permian Basin oil and gas emissions was carried out by the European Space Agency's TROPOMI instrument, which recorded 200,000 individual readings over the course of 11 months, from May 2018 to March 2019. The data showed 3.7 percent of the gas harvested by operations in the region is escaping into the atmosphere.
Readings collected by TROPOMI confirm methane emissions readings recently collected by ground-based instruments in West Texas and New Mexico, home to one of the world's most prolific oil-producing regions.
Though less abundant than CO2, the greenhouse gas effect of methane is 25 times more than of carbon dioxide. In other words, methane causes global warming more efficiently than carbon dioxide. Scientists estimate methane emissions are responsible for a quarter of today's warming.
Dozens of studies have suggested scientists have been underestimating both natural and human-caused methane emissions for decades, but a new generation of satellite instruments are helping researchers correct for the oversight.
"Advances in satellite technology and data analytics are making it possible to generate regular and robust information on methane emissions from oil and gas operations even from the most remote corners of the world," said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president for energy at EDF. "It's our goal to use this new data to help companies and countries find, measure, and reduce methane emissions further and faster, and enable the public to both track and compare progress."
ESA's TROPOMI instrument can produce more precise, higher resolution readings of ground-based gas emissions than its predecessors. The TROPOMI satellite has been circling Earth since 2017.
In 2022, TROPOMI will be joined by an even more precise methane-tracking satellite, called MethaneSAT, capable of pinpointing isolated methane emission events and locating methane sources missed by less precise instruments.
While researchers arrived at their latest findings after nearly a year of observation and several months of data analysis, scientists hope to begin automating much of the methane emissions-tracking process. By the time MethaneSAT comes online, scientists expect to have access to weekly methane measurements in near-real time.
"Early TROPOMI images showed that the Permian was one of the largest methane hotspots in the U.S. But the satellite was new, and data analysis hadn't even started. Quantifying emissions and deriving a leak rate for a huge area was a big, hands-on effort, even with the best tools," said EDF scientist Ritesh Gautam, one of the study's lead researchers. "Studies like this are expanding those boundaries. MethaneSAT and missions that follow will be more capable, delivering more data much faster, in ways that are more actionable by stakeholders."