Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

The US oil and gas industry is emitting less carbon than it used to

American oil and gas companies have cut back on methane emissions even as production reached record heights, a new analysis shows.
By Julian Spector

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Flares burning off gas at Belridge Oil Field and hydraulic fracking site which is the fourth largest oil field in California
(Citizens of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The U.S. energy industry continues to extract record amounts of fossil fuels, despite climate activists’ calls to keep it in the ground.” But while oil and gas extraction has increased in recent years, the carbon emissions from that industrial activity have actually fallen, a new analysis has found.

Even as fossil gas production rose by 40 percent from 2015 to 2022, methane emissions from gas extraction fell by 37 percent, according to a study of Environmental Protection Agency data published today by climate nonprofits Ceres and the Clean Air Task Force. That finding suggests that when energy companies want to, they can effectively reduce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 82 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over 20 years, and 30 times the warming potential over 100 years. Overall greenhouse gas emissions, which count the industry’s considerable carbon dioxide releases, also fell, but by a more modest 14 percent.

There’s a clear playbook for tackling the planet-warming emissions that result from combusting fossil fuels in power plants or vehicles. But the extraction of those fuels happens farther from public view, and adds up to a major source of industrial emissions. Indeed, oil and gas extraction and refining emitted more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other industrial subsector last year, the Rhodium Group reports. And while power and transportation emissions are falling, heavy industry is on track to become the largest emitting sector within the next decade.

If oil and gas extraction isn’t about to disappear, then making it as clean as possible is a clear win for the climate. The EPA is working on this, with new regulations on the industry’s emissions and an incoming fee on excess methane emissions that was passed in the Inflation Reduction Act. The new report shows that lower-carbon technologies and processes are in fact available, because many, though not all, leading oil companies have already adopted them.

It is possible to produce gas with lower emissions, but not all companies are performing equally,” said Lesley Feldman, who worked on the report and is a research and analysis manager on the Clean Air Task Force’s methane pollution prevention team. We’re poised to have even stronger regulations coming into effect, and it’s important that those are fully implemented.”

National fossil fuel production rose substantially from 2015 to 2022, but total methane and overall carbon emissions from that activity actually fell. (Ceres and Clean Air Task Force)

Methane emissions fell, even during the Permian oil boom

The U.S. oil and gas industry emits a lot of carbon in the process of extracting fossil fuels, which then emit more carbon when they get burned later on. But the emissions trends are heading in the right direction, at least through 2022: Despite vastly more extraction, overall emissions fell. That means the industry is emitting much less carbon per unit of oil or gas produced today than it was seven years ago.

The major caveat is that the available EPA dataset underestimates actual emissions, Feldman said. The agency requires reporting only from facilities that emit above a certain threshold, and the rules don’t currently capture super emitter events when large amounts of methane leak out unexpectedly. Field studies have shown that fugitive methane” has been leaking from gas fields at far higher rates than previously assumed; the EPA’s new rules should instigate more accurate reporting of those events. But the current data provides a useful if incomplete picture of the known sources of oil and gas field emissions.

To test the thesis that the oil industry can reduce its emissions intensity, there’s no better place to look than the Permian Basin, which has become the heart of domestic oil production since the shale revolution. The basin releases more carbon emissions from fossil fuel extraction than any other U.S. region.

Total hydrocarbon production in the Permian more than tripled from 2015 to 2022, and gas production rose by 163 percent. Given that stunning increase in fossil fuel production, one might expect a comparable surge in emissions — but that’s not what happened.

Permian methane emissions actually fell by 16 percent by 2022, though they did rise significantly in the intervening years before subsiding again. Driving that improvement, the region’s operators managed to reduce vented methane by 24 percent and cut reported fugitive methane emissions by 22 percent. So far, so good.

On the other hand, some producers deal with buildup in gas pressure by burning or flaring it, which converts most of the methane to carbon dioxide before it escapes into the atmosphere. Emissions from flaring in the Permian at the end of 2022 were at double their 2015 levels. Combustion emissions, which come from the equipment that powers extraction, nearly quadrupled during that time. Those increases in carbon dioxide emissions pushed overall GHG emissions up by 65 percent. One big takeaway: Cleaning up Permian oil production will require tackling the on-site combustion of fuels.

Despite the setback on combustion emissions, the overall emissions intensity of Permian energy production fell considerably. Methane intensity of gas extraction fell by 78 percent, and overall greenhouse gas intensity fell by 47 percent. In short, the Permian is producing far more gas and oil than it was seven years ago, but it’s doing so in a more carbon-efficient manner, which has prevented methane and carbon emissions from rising at the same rates as production.

Sources and solutions for oil and gas emissions

Fugitive methane has captured significant attention from environmental watchdogs recently, but it’s just one small slice of the oil and gas emissions pie. Indeed, routine venting of methane from equipment contributed five times as much carbon dioxide equivalent as the reported fugitive methane in 2022.

Much of that vented gas comes from pneumatic controllers, which use the pressure of the fossil gas stream to open and close valves in remote settings where other power sources aren’t available. This was a scrappy way to perform essential tasks, but now releasing methane is recognized as a problem for the climate (vented gas also can’t be sold). The EPA will phase out this practice at new facilities, and subsequently require retrofits at existing wells in the coming years, Feldman noted. Companies will then have to install options like electric controllers (powered by the grid or off-grid solar), compressed-air-driven controllers, or systems that use nitrogen instead of methane.

Most sources of carbon emissions from oil and gas production declined over the seven-year study period, but emissions from combustion of fuels increased. (Ceres and Clean Air Task Force)

The industry has gotten a head start on this. A methane-reduction coalition of 102 oil and gas companies, called the Environmental Partnership, reported that members had replaced or removed 114,000 gas-driven controllers from 2018 to 2022. Along the way, they installed 14,100 zero-emission pneumatic controllers at new sites. After those improvements, 61 member companies have eliminated high-bleed pneumatic controllers from their field operations.

The industry also emits carbon by flaring gas that it can’t or doesn’t want to deal with. Sometimes this happens at sites geared toward oil extraction, which remove some associated gas” in the process but aren’t equipped to process and sell it. The new EPA rules ban the routine flaring of associated gas, which should eliminate one of the major sources of oil field emissions. But dedicated gas wells flare too.

They can reduce the emissions from flaring — technology exists to do it,” Feldman said. It’s a matter of companies making investments in equipment that doesn’t need to flare as much.”

The category of combustion emissions remains the starkest challenge for the industry: It’s the largest source of the sector’s emissions nationally, and it rose while other types of emissions were decreasing.

Many oil and gas wells sit beyond the reach of the electric grid, so the sites burn fuel to run engines, pumps, and heaters — any equipment vital to the operation. Sometimes they burn diesel, but some sites consume a small portion of the gas they’re pulling out of the ground. Combustion emissions rose by 41 percent over the seven-year study period, a clear reflection of the industry’s propulsive growth during that time.

Electrification of sites is expensive, but ultimately it’s what we’ll need to do to reduce those emissions,” Feldman said. So far though, EPA regulations have not specifically covered that emissions source.

Pound for pound, methane poses a more dire near-term threat to global temperatures than carbon dioxide. Oil and gas producers have proved that they can reduce methane, and now the industry has its work cut out to apply those techniques across the board. But the overall sustainability of fossil fuel extraction will depend on curbing the combustion of fuels across tens of thousands of well sites. Climate advocates have seized on a meta-strategy for decarbonization: Electrify everything, and run it with clean electricity. That approach may need to extend to the realm of oil and gas extraction, for as long as it continues.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.