Low-producing U.S. oil wells account for half of methane emissions, report says

Low-producing U.S. oil wells account for half of methane emissions, report says

By Valerie Volcovici  April 20, 2022  reuters.com


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Low-producing oil and gas wells that account for just 6% of total U.S. production account for half of the methane emitted from all U.S. well sites, a new report showed on Wednesday.

The study, published in Nature Communications, is the first to take a comprehensive look at the over 560,000 active “marginal” oil and gas wells across the United States that account for 80% of all well sites. It comes as the Environmental Protection Agency prepares to unveil new provisions for its methane regulation for the oil and gas sector that it introduced last November.

Methane is the second-biggest cause of climate change after carbon dioxide.

The proposed rule drew some criticism from environmental groups because the agency only required companies to monitor large well sites emitting an estimated three tons of methane per year or more, which it said were responsible for 86% of leaks.

Marginal wells produce less than 15 barrels of oil equivalent a day and emit methane at a rate 6-12 times higher than the national average, equivalent to leaking 10% of their gas into the atmosphere, the report says.

It shows that by excluding those wells from regulation, the EPA would overlook a huge source of methane.

“The methane footprint of these small wells is enormous and can’t be ignored,” said Mark Omara, an author of the study and Environmental Defense Fund scientist.

EPA spokesperson Nick Conger said the agency received the information contained in the report during the public comment period on the November proposal.

“We are considering that, along with all other comments we received, as we develop a supplemental proposal, which the Agency expects to issue later this year,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

Oil and gas industry groups had pressed the EPA to exclude smaller wells from the regulations, citing the sheer number of such wells and the costs of the monitoring and repairs.

At low production well sites, field observations showed that equipment “negligence and disrepair” were the primary driver of methane emissions, meaning they could be avoided with more frequent monitoring and site inspections, the report said.

The proposed EPA methane rule would be the first to regulate methane that spews from existing oil and gas operations and requires oil and gas companies to routinely monitor 300,000 of their biggest well sites and other infrastructure for methane leaks and repair them quickly when found.

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This issue is far more complicated than the article acknowledges.  There is an entire industry group of operators who buy old marginal wells from larger operators, for which the economics of operating a marginal well (or field) no longer make sense.  These small operators have neither the expertise or the “overhead” budget to do the monitoring or maintenance that needs to be performed.  So, these marginal wells will simply be shut in, and then, likely, abandoned. 

So, when looking at the big picture of methane leaks and climate change, we need to understand that the measures to be put in place will likely result in a reduction of oil and gas production within the US (and, likely, some small incremental rise in the retail cost of gasoline, diesel fuel, and home heating natural gas).  Maybe shutting those marginal wells down is the right answer, let’s just make sure we understand the predictable outcome of the steps we are taking.  My experience is that the Federal Government isn’t good at taking into account the net outcome of its regulations.

And the Federal Government has dropped the ball, time and time again, failing to pass legislation when small steps would have had meaningful impacts on GHG emissions.  We are past the small steps point and all O&G operators, regardless of company size or type of wells operated, should be monitored.  This can be done by state governments with federal funding.  Currently operators have no idea the level of methane emissions throughout their supply chain.  This is totally unacceptable since reducing methane emissions is the easiest and quickest means to slow warming.  If we can't measure it, we can't address it.  We have reached the point of sheer madness when it comes to the arc of natural disasters and readily apparent near term escalations in climate dangers.  It is my suggestion that no measures are off the table.  I would further suggest that any member interested in how we got here make time to watch the PBS Front Line series, "The Power of Big Oil".


I’m not saying “don’t do it.”. I’m saying be cognizant of the likely outcome of the measures to be taken.

There is no easy way.  And all the arguments about economic impacts, lose of jobs, tax revenue, etc. can not be more important than the climate trajectory we are on and the complete inability of society to deal with just what is baked into the near future. 

Here in Louisiana, one of the major debates is over flood and home owner's insurance.  Smaller insurance companies are going into receivership, medium size companies are leaving the market and larger companies are rapidly increasing premiums.  National flood insurance will soon be unaffordable based on projected premium increases over the next two to three years.  Home owners are upset.  South LA is seeing more and more destructive storms.  In a capitalistic economy, how in the world do you force insurance companies to ensure vulnerable properties at affordable premiums?  How does a federal flood insurance program pay ever rising claims with premiums that will not fund the ever increasing losses?  This is not sustainable.  Every possible remedy needs to be on the table.  

Someone might say we're living in a CATASTROPHIC ECONOMY.

And I admit I'm part of the problem. I like my royalty income. I want them to drill more wells. Nonetheless, I want them to also mitigate the human-caused climate changes. I want both. But I honestly think it's too late to stop what's coming. Sadly, it is what it is. The "die" is cast, so to speak.  

In other words, the voting public will always elect/vote their pocketbooks. Vote to protect their own jobs, even at the expense of terrible weather/climate change. Vote for a higher income for their families. It's human nature. It will not change. Vote for a good profitable economy. No gloom and doom will sway them from trying to hold onto the lifestyle they know.

Note gonna happen.

Me, I want drilling. I want NG royalty income. I also want a livable planet. But I know human nature and history enough to see the writing on the wall.

It's probably impossible to pivot away from the path we're on.

So, as always, you're thinking is spot-on, Skip. I always like learning from you. Us long-term GHS members know how much truth you've always shared with us. And the PBS series is telling. Very telling. The truth hurts.

Keep up the good work. Congrats to the HA/BO mineral owners who will be reaping the higher royalty and new wells to come per much higher NG prices. Hey, it took long enough, didn't it my friends? A long time to get to where we are.   

The American public is largely uninformed which makes it easy to vote their narrow personal interests.  Whose fault is that?  The media?  Elected officials beholden to big oil and big business?  I strongly urge members to watch the first installment of PBS Front Line's Big Oil.  Pay special attention to the Chuck Hagel interview segments keeping in mind that this is the mid 1990's, twenty-five years ago, and our Congressional representatives are ignoring the scientists and parroting the lies of big oil.

If efforts to mitigate GHG and methane emissions had begun three decades ago, we wouldn't face the stark choices now before us.  If we kick the can down the road again, we will experience the worst of what science has been telling us for twenty-five year is coming.  We are running out of time to take any actions that will avoid the worst case scenarios.

I pretty much agree with everything you said, Jesse, and Skip's comments are spot on. It doesn't look good, due to what you said, Jesse, about human nature and people voting their pocketbook and unwilling to make tough choices. I fear that is true.

As for marginal wells being such a big part of the problem, this makes total sense to me. As you or somebody said, small operators buy stripper well production and they are low-budget operators, operating everything on a shoestring, just as cheaply as they can get by with. Legal or not. That is just the way it is.

Instead of wringing hands and forgoing any action that might possibly upset someone somewhere, there are rational actions that are still not considered for implementation.  The bulk of methane emissions are from old and poorly maintained wells and associated infrastructure.  Properly plug and abandon orphan wells and we get rid of some methane leakage, maybe 10 to 15% nationally.  Then monitor all producing wells and supply chain facilities.  Where leaks are found, give operators a choice to properly abandon the well or gathering system or fix the leaks.  Much of those leaks can be addressed with maintenance or replacement of malfunctioning or old technology valves.  There are estimates that this will reduce emissions by another 40+% if properly enforced.  Yes, there is a cost to the operators.  I'd call that  the price of doing business because the global climate crisis is more important than their business bottom line.  This may of course impact domestic production.......by less than 5%?  I don't think that sounds extreme.  I think it makes too much sense not to do it.  And the bulk of O&G companies are still in business.  And Jessee, you get to keep your royalty income.  As do the vast majority of mineral lessors.

I imagine the costs of stopping and preventing fugitive emissions are negligible when you consider the lost revenue from escaped gas.  Of course, we probably can't even begin to fathom how much methane is leaking from the ground in Siberia.

The timeline for some facets of climate warming are fairly well known and modeled but there are some that are not.  The carbon contained in melting permafrost is one.  At some point, some temperature mass melting can begin and we will have no means to stop it.  At that point the damage to our climate will persist for generations.  And parts of the world will become uninhabitable.  Permafrost in Siberia and Alaska is being to melt now.

Summer 2021 warmest ever for Europe


BERLIN – Scientists say last summer was the hottest summer on record in Europe, with temperatures a full 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average for the previous three decades.

A report released Friday by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service found while spring 2021 was cooler than average, the summer months were marked by “severe and long-lasting heatwaves” that saw numerous new temperature records, including an unprecedented 119.8 degrees Fahrenheit measured in Sicily last August.

The prolonged high temperatures contributed to wildfires such as those seen in Siberia, Greece and Turkey last year, and experts say they make heavy rainfall of the kind that led to deadly flooding in Belgium and Germany last July more likely.

Sea surface temperatures last year were higher than at any time since at least 1992 in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and parts of the Baltic Sea.

The agency’s findings are based on ground-based weather stations and satellite observations dating back to 1950.


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