"To the naked eye, the Mako Compressor Station outside the dusty West Texas crossroads of Lenorah appears unremarkable, similar to tens of thousands of oil and gas operations scattered throughout the oil-rich Permian Basin. What’s not visible through the chain-link fence is the plume of invisible gas, primarily methane, billowing from the gleaming white storage tanks up into the cloudless blue sky." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
Climate change has already been extremely urgent for decades. Now, the clock is ticking even faster, thanks to a massive methane leak in the Permian Basin.
"The Mako station, owned by a subsidiary of West Texas Gas Inc., was observed releasing an estimated 870 kilograms of methane — an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere each hour. That’s the equivalent impact on the climate of burning seven tanker trucks full of gasoline every day." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
Unfortunately, Mako's emissions are not regulated, or illegal.
"...Mako’s outsized emissions aren’t illegal, or even regulated. And it was only one of 533 methane 'super emitters' detected during a 2021 aerial survey of the Permian conducted by Carbon Mapper, a partnership of university researchers and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.—Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
In fact, there are many other polluters worsening climate change daily with zero consequences from the law.
"The group documented massive amounts of methane venting into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations across the Permian, a 250-mile-wide, bone-dry expanse along the Texas-New Mexico border that a billion years ago was the bottom of a shallow sea. Hundreds of those sites were seen spewing the gas over and over again. Ongoing leaks, gushers, going unfixed." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
Only 10 companies are responsible for this massive amount of pollution.
"Just 10 companies owned at least 164 of those sites, according to an AP analysis of Carbon Mapper’s data. West Texas Gas owned 11." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
These emissions will significantly worsen the likelihood of hurricanes, fires, and many other natural disasters for decades, which we have already been struggling with.
"The methane released by these companies will be disrupting the climate for decades, contributing to more heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and floods. There’s now nearly three times as much methane in the air than there was before industrial times. The year 2021 saw the worst single increase ever." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
While curbing carbon emissions is essential, many other greenhouse gases have gone relatively unnoticed, making the environmental situation even direr.
"Methane’s Earth-warming power is some 83 times stronger over 20 years than the carbon dioxide that comes from car tailpipes and power plant smokestacks. Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency have largely failed to regulate the invisible gas. That leaves it up to oil and gas producers — in some cases the very companies who have been fighting regulations — to cut methane emissions on their own." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
In fact, methane is far more damaging than carbon dioxide, according to Kassie Siegel, the director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity: an environmental organization.
“Methane is a super pollutant...If carbon dioxide is the fossil-fuel broiler of our heating planet, methane is a blowtorch.” —Kassie Seigel
To make matters worse, it is extremely difficult to track methane emissions.
"Methane emissions are notoriously hard to track because they are intermittent. An old well may be wafting methane one day but not the next." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
Nonetheless, AP journalists visited over twenty sites flagged as consistent methane emitters.
"...in October, AP journalists visited more than two dozen sites flagged as persistent methane super emitters by Carbon Mapper with a FLIR infrared camera and recorded video of large plumes of hydrocarbon gas containing methane escaping from pipeline compressors, tank batteries, flare stacks and other production infrastructure. The Carbon Mapper data and the AP’s camerawork show many of the worst emitters are steadily charging the Earth’s atmosphere with this extra gas." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
The irony of this situation is that methane is not actually a waste product: It's a resource.
"One of the unusual things about this kind of climate pollution is that operators are wasting the very product they are working to extract. Methane gas is not a waste product; it is the target gas that operators drill for, process and sell all over the world." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
Some of these companies claim they are determined to be "environmental stewards" yet they are wary to go into detail about the specific improvements that will be made.
"In a statement, Midland-based West Texas Gas said it routinely conducts its own overflights with gas detection equipment and within the last six months had either 'repaired or upgraded' nine of the super emitting sites that AP asked about, including Mako. The company was 'actively addressing' another site, though it declined to provide specifics about what improvements were made and when. WTG said it inspected the last site and found no leak. 'West Texas Gas is deeply committed to environmental stewardship and continuously strengthens company processes and procedures to ensure we operate in a manner that is consistent with that commitment,' the statement said.—Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
Devastatingly, we have hesitated to meaningfully take action on this issue for years, and. when Mr. Obama attempted to, his efforts were quickly demolished by Mr. Trump, who somehow believed that climate change was nothing but a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese...
Needless to say, Mr. Trump had no evidence to support this theory.
"In May 2016, former President Barack Obama announced a Climate Action Plan that included new federal rules requiring the oil and gas sector to slash methane emissions by 40 percent by 2025. But former President Donald Trump, who derided climate change as a Chinese-perpetrated hoax, scrapped those policies before they took effect.Trump’s climate denial and die-hard support for fossil fuels attracted campaign contributions from the industry. It also won him widespread support in the Permian’s Republican-dominated cities and towns, where pumping oil and gas is considered both lifeblood and birthright." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
To his credit, President Biden has taken action to improve the regulation of methane emissions, but those rules are, conveniently, still under review.
"On the first day of his administration, President Joe Biden ordered the EPA to write new rules to reduce the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions, and Congress reinstated some Obama-era restrictions on methane from new oil and gas facilities. Proposed rules to address emissions from the hundreds of thousands of existing sites are still under review." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
People have already died from heatwaves.
People have already died from wildfires.
Communities have been destroyed by floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes.
If we don't change our ways—and soon!— the situation will only get worse.
“Reducing air emissions from the oil and natural gas sector is a top priority for the administration and for EPA...Methane is helping drive impacts that communities across the country are already seeing every day, including heat waves and wildfires and sea level rise.” Tomás Carbonell (the EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for stationary sources)
Although the U.S. does maintain a record of methane emissions, the tracking of the actual rate in the Permian is often inaccurate.
"To track the problem, the U.S. government keeps an inventory of methane released into the atmosphere. Those figures are used by policymakers and scientists to help calculate how much the planet will warm in the coming decades. But the AP found the government database often fails to account for the true rate of emissions observed in the Permian." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
Meanwhile, selective reporting by certain companies is only increasing the urgency of climate change.
"The EPA requires companies to report to its Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program emissions above the equivalent of 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Only a few dozen sites in the Permian say they exceed that threshold for methane. The AP’s analysis, however, found more than 140 of the super-emitting facilities identified by Carbon Mapper were on track to exceed the reporting limit. For example, Carbon Mapper estimated that Mako emitted an average 870 kilos of methane per hour over each of the four times it was measured. Over the course of a year, that would be 7.6 times the federal reporting threshold." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
The Clean Air Act does require companies to report their emissions, yet the Environmental Protection Agency did not find any cases of organizations facing consequences for inaccurately reporting their emissions—or not reporting them at all.
"Though the Clean Air Act requires companies to accurately report greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA could not provide the AP with an example of a polluter being fined or cited for failing to report, or underreporting." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
It seems as though even the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is quite reluctant to monitor emissions, perhaps because so much of the Lone Star State's revenue comes from oil and gas.
"Tim Doty retired from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2018 because, he said, the agency’s leadership had little interest in monitoring, documenting or addressing airborne emissions, not even the toxic chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and benzene that can come from oil and gas operations." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
There have been some fines which—although large for many American families—are quite minimal for oil companies raking in massive amounts of cash each year.
"TCEQ has issued upwards of $10 million in annual fines for violations of air, water or waste standards, but the median fine — less than $4,000 — is pocket change for most oil and gas companies." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Enterprise Products has denied the state's allegations on the basis of their emissions.
"Enterprise Products, which acquired the Navitas pipelines underlying more than a dozen methane plumes in the AP’s analysis, was fined $46,000 last year for flares and valve malfunctions at its Texas facilities. The company is valued at more than $50 billion. Targa faced state fines of $100,000 for carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide emissions. Neither company was cited for emitting methane. Both denied the state’s allegations and offset their financial penalties by helping school districts purchase new buses." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
Across state lines, the Land of Enchantment has taken a much different approach.
"Across the border in New Mexico, regulators are taking a much different approach. New regulations enacted last year by the administration of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham regulates methane not as a greenhouse gas but as a wasted industrial resource that when released into the atmosphere deprives the state of tax revenue.The new rules require producers to report the amount of gas they produce and track what was lost. Routine flaring and venting are forbidden, and producers have to provide an explanation each time gas is burned off." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
Despite the general consensus that oil and gas are damaging the environment and many nations' efforts to lower their carbon footprint, the demand for natural gas continues to increase: the Russia-Ukraine War has made matters worse and many people simply need to commute to and from work, whether they like it or not—electric and hybrid vehicles are arguably too expensive.
"Even as nations seek to lower their carbon footprints, global demand for natural gas continues to grow. This year alone, U.S. gas shipments to Europe have tripled since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. On any given day, about 500 rigs are drilling new wells in the Permian basin to boost production. They tower over the landscape, hulking steel goliaths that seem to spring up as spontaneously as desert flowers after a thunderstorm, moving on to somewhere else after a couple weeks." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
It's also important to note that a lot of folks who work on oil rigs simply do so to feed their families, even if they actually don't agree with the environmental impact of their job: people are desperate sometimes, and the oil industry offers exceptionally large salaries.
"Most rigs run day and night, with crews of roughnecks rotating in 12-hour shifts. They often sleep on site in nearby 'man camps,' rows and rows of bunk house trailers where weekly rents for a room are comparable to big city apartments. The constant need for skilled workers drives blue-collar incomes that can easily reach six figures a year, supporting spouses and children who often live hundreds of miles away. More than 5,000 new well-drilling permits were issued in the Texas portion of the Permian in 2021. Numbers from the first quarter of 2022 show the industry on pace to eclipse that figure. Each new well, which takes about two weeks to drill, represents millions in capital investment — corporate bets that demand for oil and gas will continue for decades to come." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
Ironically, while leaders across the globe are taking action to significantly curb methane emissions, companies are increasingly in search of more oil and natural gas.
"The frenetic search for more gas and oil is happening just as Biden and other world leaders are promising to cut methane emissions across the globe." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
We are in dire straits and, if we continue to prioritize short-term profits over the urgent need for environmental protections, I would argue that we will soon not have a habitable space to build and grow an economy in.
"Scientists warn that we are in a decisive decade for the Earth’s climate, with sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions needed immediately to avoid the most catastrophic droughts and superstorms and prevent coastal cities from being swamped by rising seas." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
Thankfully, some progress is being made, but we need to do a lot more than we currently are.
"At an international climate summit in November, the United States signed on to a Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. More than 100 countries agreed to the target, though Russia and some other major methane emitters refused. To meet that deadline, the American oil and gas industry would have to reduce emissions at a rate far beyond anything currently seen. The industry says it is working toward that goal...But climate scientists and environmentalists warn the industry’s incremental efforts are nowhere near enough to avoid dire consequences for humanity." —Michael Biesecker & Helen Wieffering (Associated Press)
We already have the tools to curb emissions. Now we just need the political and cultural will to make the change.
“Methane is responsible for 25 percent of today’s global warming, and we can’t limit future warming to 2 degrees Celsius if we don’t drastically cut those emissions...We have the tools to cut methane in half, and the faster we do that, the better off our climate and communities will be.” —Ilissa Ocko (a senior climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund)