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Oil and gas areas of Mountain West leak up to nine times more methane than EPA thinks

This is an image of a green oil pumpjack on a vast desert basin. The sky is cloudy.
Adobe Stock
An oil pumpjack in the Permian Basin of New Mexico, where more than 9% of the methane produced leaks into the air, according to a new study.

Methane is a strong climate-warming pollutant. And a new study shows oil and gas operations in the Mountain West and beyond are leaking a lot more of it than the government thinks.

Researchers at Stanford University, Kairos Aerospace and Carbon Mapper analyzed methane emissions gathered from aerial surveys over six oil- and gas-producing regions in the U.S. That included areas of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Texas, and Pennsylvania.

On average, about 3% of methane produced leaks into the air, which is three times higher than Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

New Mexico’s Permian Basin had the highest methane emission rate at more than 9%. Utah’s Unita Basin had the second-highest rate at nearly 6%. On the other end of the spectrum was Colorado’s Denver Basin, which had an emission rate of 1%. Only the Pennsylvania portion of the Appalachian Basin had a lower rate (0.75%).

Methane leaking into the air is the second-largest contributor to climate warming after carbon dioxide, said Evan Sherwin, who led the research at Stanford and now works at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

“The planet is unfortunately at about one and a half degrees of warming above pre-industrial temperatures. And about half a degree of that is from methane,” Sherwin said.

Sherwin noted that the agriculture industry – specifically, raising livestock – is also a big source of methane. But, he added, when it comes to cutting emissions, “it's a lot easier to reengineer an oil-and gas-production facility than it is a cow.”

In all, researchers found the oil and gas regions included in the study released more than 6 million tons of methane emissions a year. That amounts to more than $9 billion in annual social costs when factoring in damages from climate change, and a loss of about $1 billion worth of commercial gas.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.