To the naked eye, the Mako Compressor Station outside the dusty West Texas crossroads of Lenorah appears unremarkable, similar to tens of thousands of oil and gas operations scattered throughout the oil-rich Permian Basin.
What’s not visible through the chain-link fence is the plume of invisible gas, primarily methane, billowing from the gleaming white storage tanks up into the cloudless blue sky.
The Mako station, owned by a subsidiary of West Texas Gas Inc., was observed releasing an estimated 870 kilograms of methane – an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere each hour. That’s the equivalent impact on the climate of burning seven tanker trucks full of gasoline every day.
But Mako’s outsized emissions aren’t illegal, or even regulated. And it was only one of 533 methane “super emitters” detected during a 2021 aerial survey of the Permian conducted by Carbon Mapper, a partnership of university researchers and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The group documented massive amounts of methane venting into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations across the Permian, a 250-mile-wide bone-dry expanse along the Texas-New Mexico border that a billion years ago was the bottom of a shallow sea. Hundreds of those sites were seen spewing the gas over and over again. Ongoing leaks, gushers, going unfixed.
“We see the same sites active from year to year. It’s not just month to month or season to season,” said Riley Duren, a research scientist at the University of Arizona who leads Carbon Mapper.
Carbon Mapper identified the spewing sites only by their GPS coordinates. The Associated Press took the coordinates of the 533 “super-emitting” sites and cross-referenced them with state drilling permits, air quality permits, pipeline maps, land records and other public documents to piece together the corporations most likely responsible.
Just 10 companies owned at least 164 of those sites, according to an AP analysis of Carbon Mapper’s data. West Texas Gas owned 11.
The methane released by these companies will be disrupting the climate for decades, contributing to more heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and floods. There’s now nearly three times as much methane in the air than there was before industrial times. The year 2021 saw the worst single increase ever.
Methane’s earth-warming power is some 83 times stronger over 20 years than the carbon dioxide that comes from car tailpipes and power plant smokestacks. Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency have largely failed to regulate the invisible gas. That leaves it up to oil and gas producers — in some cases the very companies who have been fighting regulations — to cut methane emissions on their own.
“Methane is a super pollutant,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. “If carbon dioxide is the fossil-fuel broiler of our heating planet, methane is a blowtorch.”
Methane emissions are notoriously hard to track because they are intermittent. An old well may be wafting methane one day, but not the next.
But last October, AP journalists visited more than two dozen sites flagged as persistent methane super emitters by Carbon Mapper with a FLIR infrared camera and recorded video of large plumes of hydrocarbon gas containing methane escaping from pipeline compressors, tank batteries, flare stacks and other production infrastructure. The Carbon Mapper data and the AP’s camera work show many of the worst emitters are steadily charging the Earth’s atmosphere with this extra gas.
In addition to West Texas Gas’s Mako site, AP observed a large plume of gas escaping from tanks at a WTG compressor station about 15 miles away in the Sale Ranch oil field. Carbon Mapper estimated that emissions from that site averaged about 410 kilos of methane an hour.
AP found Targa Resources, a Houston-based natural gas storage, processing and distribution company, was the closest operator to 30 sites that were emitting a combined 3,000 kilograms of methane per hour, with plumes escaping from pipelines, wells, tanks and compressor stations across the company’s sprawling Texas footprint.
Targa did not respond to a detailed list of questions from the AP.
Another 21 super-emitting sources were detected at facilities owned by Navitas Midstream, a pipeline company based north of Houston, that has since been sold to Enterprise Products Partners. Equipment belonging to Navitas was estimated to be releasing a combined 3,525 kilos of methane an hour.