Processing facilities in Mexico’s oil and natural gas patch are emitting “exceptionally high levels of methane pollution” at 10 times the rate being reported by the government, according to a new study led by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

methane emissions

The study tracked emissions of the potent greenhouse gas across the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Veracruz and the Campeche coast. The methane pollution was mainly from incomplete combustion of natural gas at industrial flaring sites, researchers said.

Emissions data indicated an annual resource loss of 100 Bcf, valued at about $200 million/year, or 13 times the annual budget of Mexico’s oil and gas environmental regulator, Agencia de Seguridad, Energía y Abiente (ASEA).

While emissions measured from onshore processing facilities were 10 times higher than official estimates, emissions from offshore rigs were 10 times lower. This suggests “that the gas produced efficiently offshore is piped to inefficient land-based facilities where it is later flared or leaked,” researchers said.

“Uncovering the reasons why such vast data discrepancies exist can help Mexico target proven gas capture methods to secure the economic, social and environmental benefits of oil and gas methane reductions,” said lead author, EDF scientist Daniel Zavala-Araiza.

Methane has more than 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide during the first two decades after its release into the atmosphere, according to EDF.

ASEA in 2018 adopted methane regulations for the oil and gas sector touted as the most stringent in Latin America. Enforcement of the rules, though, has proven easier said than done, based on the latest findings.

ASEA’s budget has been slashed repeatedly under the austerity program of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has expressed distrust of ASEA and other autonomous government regulatory agencies.

Concerns over climate change have taken a backseat to López Obrador’s goal of restoring Mexico’s “energy sovereignty” by pumping federal funds into state oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex).

Pemex reportedly is no longer an active member of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, an industry-led coalition to curb the sector’s climate impacts.

For the latest study, scientists found that a single onshore processing complex, Nuevo Pemex, produced greater emissions than the country’s entire Gulf of Mexico offshore production region, which supplies 80% of Mexico’s crude output.

Amid declining natural gas production by Pemex, Mexico has increasingly relied on pipeline gas imports from the United States to meet local demand, another argument for capturing as much gas as possible from local upstream operations according to researchers.

“When Mexican oil and gas facilities leak methane, they are wasting valuable domestic energy resources and polluting the climate and air, said Zavala-Araiza. “The amount of methane leaking at just one onshore facility we studied was enough gas to meet the needs of 50% of Mexico’s residential gas customers.”

EDF’s Shareen Yawanarajah, senior policy manager for global energy, added, “Rarely are there issues like methane that present a winning proposition for all sides. Mexico should embrace a ‘use it, don’t lose it’ approach to addressing methane and leverage its regulations to deliver on promised efficiency gains while protecting public health, the climate and fragile ocean ecosystems.”

The study comes amid a growing call for more drastic action to curb methane emissions from oil and gas activity.

Methane emissions from the sector fell by an estimated 10% in 2020, although the decline was mainly due to shut-in production in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent economic collapse, according to the International Energy Agency’s Methane Tracker 2021 report.

The incoming Biden administration in the United States also is expected to take a much tougher stance on methane than the previous regime.