Methane emissions from oil and gas are even worse than previously thought

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Texas Oil, Oil Derrick, Pumpjack (Getty Images) - 1920

A pumpjack sits on the outskirts of town at dawn in the Permian Basin oil field in Midland, Texas. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

(CBS MONEYWATCH) — Recent research indicates that the fossil fuel industry is responsible for far more methane than previously believed. 

Experts say slashing methane emissions is essential to staving off the worst effects of global warming, with the United Nations calling it “the strongest lever we have to slow climate change.” Yet a new analysis of satellite data shows that fossil fuel companies — which contribute up to half of human-caused methane emissions around the globe — are falling far short of their pledges to eliminate the environmentally destructive hydrocarbon. 

Geofinancial Analytics, a satellite data provider, examined images of oil-and-gas producing regions in the U.S. and around the world, and, for the first time, linked methane emissions to specific companies. Researchers compared companies’ actual methane output with their expected emissions level based on self-reported data and climate plans. The firm then ranked producers on a scale from “CC” to “A” (mimicking ratings for financial products), with the worst emitters earning the former grade.

Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron were the worst performers, according to an analysis of the 15 largest oil- and-gas producers. They were followed by ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil and Exxon Mobil. No company received better than a middling grade, Geofinancial Analytics CEO Mark Kriss told CBS MoneyWatch.

“All producers scored well below ‘best’,” Kriss said in an email.

Matching deeds to words

Geofinancial’s analysis is one of the first attempts to compare fossil fuel companies’ promises to cut their methane emissions to the reality on the ground and in the atmosphere. The company relies on satellite readings of airborne methane concentrations in gas-producing areas in North America, Europe and Brazil.

“We cannot take specific action that makes a real difference without specific information about sources, and our data stream and information from emerging satellites is a key new insight,” Jessica Hellmann, Geofinancial’s chief scientist, said in an email. 

Although satellites can detect many types of greenhouse gases, “There is particular power and importance to methane (because of its potency and immediacy) and the oil and gas sector (a major methane source with clear ownership and risk parameters),” she said.

When actual methane emissions were compared to companies’ disclosures and climate goals, Chevron and Shell were again the worst performers, followed closely by ConocoPhillips and Marathon. Pioneer Natural Resources was the only company among the 15 largest whose measured emissions were similar to its reported emissions — earning a middling grade of “BB,” according to Geofinancial Analytics. 

Oil and gas producers named in the Geofinancial report questioned the group’s methodology while defending their efforts to reduce emissions. 

“After a discussion with Geofinancial Analytics, we are concerned that the underlying data and assumptions used in their analysis may not be sufficiently robust to accurately attribute emissions to specific operators or support the generation of a company-by-company ranking for methane emissions in select basins in North America,” Sean Comey, a spokesperson for Chevron, said in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. “Over time, their models and analysis have the potential to improve as additional information becomes available to them.”

Cindy Babski, a spokesperson for Shell, noted that the energy giant owns and operates fewer than 2,000 active wellheads in North America, far less than the number attributed to it in Geofinancial’s analysis. Shell also pointed to its use of methane-detection technologies, including satellites.

We disagree with the conclusions made by Geofinancial Analytics’ MethaneScan® and take issue with the methodology used to reach those conclusions,” Babski said. “Shell strongly supports the use of satellite data to detect Shell’s methane emissions. We use data collected by GHGSat, a high-resolution satellite which monitors greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, in addition to other detection technologies. Based on this data, we are taking aggressive actions to effectively identify and reduce our emissions. Shell remains firmly committed to a methane intensity below 0.2% by 2025.”

Spokespeople for Chevron and Exxon Mobil referred CBS MoneyWatch to the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group that represents oil and gas companies, for information on methane reductions. The group on Monday sued the Interior Department over the government’s refusal to allow oil and gas drilling on federal lands. 

A spokesperson for ConocoPhillips said Geofinancial’s data “has significant limitations,” including attributing “emissions to companies based on wellhead density rather than identifying the specific sites from which the emissions originated,” and overlooking emissions from facilities such as pipelines. 

In “areas like the Permian [Basin] where operators work in close proximity to one another, our experience has been that it is hard for satellites to accurately pinpoint the source of emissions,” the spokesperson said. “The benchmark methodology may only be identifying which companies have the most sites in an area, not necessarily which companies are responsible for the emissions.” 

Enough methane is lost from the Permian Basin in West Texas to power 7 million households every year, making natural gas in some instances far worse for the climate than even coal.

ConocoPhillips also said that it “holds itself accountable to the highest standard of operational excellence” and that it has reduced methane emissions by 65% since 2015. 

“Radical transparency”

One explanation for the high methane emissions attributed to large extraction companies is that Geofinancial’s analysis holds companies responsible for wells for five years after they no longer operate them.

“Some of the oil majors have a very large number of abandoned wells for which they are the most recent operator. It is known that such wells can be a significant source of methane emissions over long periods of time,” Kriss noted.

The large number of wells attributed to Shell in the analysis — 64,000, far more than the 2,000 Shell currently operates — is due to the company’s legacy operations in North America, noted Reuters, which teamed with Geofinancial on the data. There is some evidence that large oil and gas companies are achieving emissions reductions by selling old wells to smaller operators, the wire service reported. In 2019, half of the top 10 methane emitters were smaller companies that bought up abandoned wells, Reuters reported.

Geofinancial Analytics plans to release more detailed emissions data as it gains access to more powerful satellite images, Kriss said, noting it “is just the beginning of a new era of radical transparency.”

Identifying specific emitters will be key if the world is to cut down on methane emissions significantly. And the oil and gas industry — one of the largest sources of anthropogenic methane — is uniquely well-positioned to reduce its emissions. Nearly half of the industry’s methane leaks could be eliminated with no net cost, according to a recent analysis. 

The fossil fuels sector “is one of the biggest methane emitters, but it also has the most cost-effective solutions,” said David Lyon, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Unlike carbon dioxide, which comes from a wide range of sources — cars, home heating systems, buildings and power plants — methane leaks come from a relatively limited number of sources.

“A handful of point sources are responsible for a majority of emissions,” said Joe von Fischer, a professor of biology at Colorado State University who studies methane emissions. 

“If we want to slow the pace of warming, we can attack methane emissions as a way to buy us more time,” he added. 

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