The Environmental Defense Fund, which has often partnered with the oil and natural gas industry to tackle methane issues across the Lower 48, has turned its eye to the largest production area in the country, the Permian Basin.

A year-long effort to map and measure emissions in a first-of-its-kind effort would provide transparent data spotlighting methane reduction opportunities as well as help curtail regional climate pollution, the nonprofit group said.

“The data gathered here will better define the scope of the methane problem in the Permian and provide much needed information so that companies, public officials and local communities can better manage emissions,” said EDF’s Matt Watson, vice president of energy.

EDF plans to convene a team of research institutions and technology providers in the initiative centered on a region where more than half of U.S. oil rigs now are in operation. With growing production comes additional associated emissions, the group noted.

Tower monitors deployed at fixed locations, combined with mobile readings taken both on the ground and in the air, could fill gaps in the public understanding of emissions. The data would be incorporated from remote sensing and satellites collected by other researchers to achieve the most robust measurements possible.

The project is designed to estimate methane emission rates from basin-wide oil and gas production, with data published on a public platform on an ongoing basis, accompanied by trend analyses.

Field measurements are scheduled to begin in November, and the first data release is targeted for early 2020.

Methane emissions in the Permian remain a mystery, according to EDF. Nearly 5 million b/d is produced in the basin, which stretches from West Texas into southeastern New Mexico, but most of the emissions go “unmeasured, unregulated and unmitigated.”

EDF researchers last year contended that nationwide methane emissions from the oil and gas industry could be at least 60% higher than estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Satellite data has identified significant methane hotspots in the Permian, as well as the burning of excess methane in a process known as flaring,” EDF noted.

“This project will combine multiple layers and multiple kinds of measurement to create the fullest, most accurate picture possible,” said University of Michigan’s Eric Kort.

Kort, along with McGill University’s Mary Kang and Stanford University’s Adam Brandt are to act as independent scientific advisers for the study. Science and technology partners include Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), the University of Wyoming (UW) and Scientific Aviation, which provides airborne emissions sensing. 

Penn State is tasked with installing a network of tower-based, stationary sensors to continuously measure methane concentrations, which would be analyzed to estimate regional emissions and how they change over the project. UW would deploy a vehicle-based, downwind approach to quantify site-level methane emissions from oil and gas sites, including as a comparison to aerial measurements. Stanford and EDF have been testing methane detection and quantification technologies.

In addition to the frequent data releases, findings from the scientific work conducted for the project are to be peer reviewed.

Texas has not taken “significant regulatory action” on methane emissions and done little to enforce the current rules, according to EDF, but New Mexico is moving forward to develop methane rules.

Last year 13 of the biggest producers in the world agreed to target by 2025 a 20% reduction in the average methane intensity of aggregated upstream operations to below 0.25%. Achieving the agreed intensity target of 0.25% by the end of 2025 would reduce collective emissions by 350,000 metric tons/year, compared to the baseline of 0.32% in 2017, according to the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative.