Hydrocarbons leaks at Loving-area facilities are called 'concerning' by Sendero President
Hydrocarbons could be leaking out of at least two southern Eddy County extraction facilities, per video footage released this week by environmentalist group Earthworks.
The footage was created using Forward Looking InfraRed (FLIR) GF320 cameras directed at Sendero Midstream’s Pecos Compressor Station in Loving, and a wellsite owned by Mewbourne Oil Co. in southern Eddy County.
Hydrocarbons, a chief component of petroleum and natural gas, can cause severe health effects if consumed in large quantities for an extended amount of time.
They can be harmless at low levels and short exposures, but can cause death, nausea or other illnesses, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control.
While the cameras cannot detect the exact chemicals being released, or the quantity, Earthworks thermographer Sharon Wilson said the devices are specifically calibrated to pick up hydrocarbons and other volatile compounds.
After reviewing the footage during an interview with the Current-Argus, Sendero President and Chief Executive Officer Clay Bretches agreed that the apparent leak was “concerning.”
Mewbourne did not return a request for comment.
Bretches said it appeared a pressure release valve was triggered and left open, releasing gas into the air, and Sendero personnel would immediately address the issue.
Such an incident can occur when a large amount of liquid is pumped into the compression station, raising the tank pressure and triggering the release to prevent an explosion, Bretches said.
Sendero also uses FLIR cameras to look for leaks, Bretches said, but had not found any at the gas compression plant that celebrated its grand opening last month.
Sendero's safety program calls for quarterly testing for leaks at the sites, he said.
“All our pipes are brand new,” he said. “There should be minimal leakage. That’s realistic.”
Bretches said his company is committed to protecting the environment during its expansion which is expected to include four more facilities in southeast New Mexico.
“We’re very committed to the environment,” Bretches said. “These types of things are very concerning. We want to be good stewards of the environment. It will be addressed.”
He said the possible leak would be inspected by Sendero workers immediately following the Friday interview.
“We’re going to see to it that we step up our efforts to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Bretches said.
The industry standard
Hydrocarbons absorb a “narrow” area of the light spectrum, Wilson said, and the cameras are the oil and gas industry’s standard for detecting leaks.
Bretches confirmed that Sendero uses the same FLIR cameras during its own inspections.
“It’s very narrowly tuned for the hydrocarbons,” Wilson said. “It images the air pollution coming off of these facilities.”
She said black or gray smoke seen in the footage indicates a high level of hydrocarbons that could be methane or other byproducts of extraction.
The camera is verified to pick up 20 volatile organic compounds, Wilson said, at a “minimum leak detection rate.”
“If you’re looking at a tank that holds oil and there’s a lot of emissions, it’s not going to be cotton candy,” Wilson said. “It will be hydrocarbon vapors. It does pick up other compounds, and forms of air pollution.”
Wilson said the footage was generated in hopes of raising awareness for the pollution that could be the result of oil and gas activities.
She was certified to use the equipment in 2014, and has created footage in 15 states and three countries.
The Permian Basin was one of the worst areas she’s filmed, Wilson said, due to the fast-paced growth in the region’s industry.
“It’s the frenzied pace of the build out,” she said. “They don’t seem to be taking much care. It’s really shocking to see this happening. The Permian Basin is the worst I’ve seen anywhere. For the people of Carlsbad, it’s very harmful to their health.
“It’s also a waste. That gas could be put in a pipeline.”
According to the EDF, $240 million of potential revenue is lost per year due to methane waste. The industry disputed that number, saying that the methane capture rule recently rescinded by the Bureau of Land Management would have meant a $750 million loss in revenue for the New Mexico's general fund.
Extraction companies often favor quick development over environmental concerns, Wilson said, hoping to capitalize on a volatile industry that defines the region.
“I think they see it. They just don’t do anything about it,” she said. “Out there, they’re moving so fast they don’t to stop and take time. They’re basically on their honor to solve the problem.”
In addition to publicizing the footage online, Earthworks field advocate Nathalie Eddy said she filed seven complaints to the New Mexico Environment Department, each for a facility in the Loving area.
She said some of the sites had open “thief hatches” which vented large clouds of hydrocarbons into the air.
Eddy said it was unknown how long the gasses were vented, but were evident during filming on June 4.
“We’re not looking at heat,” she said. “You could just see the density of the fumes comings off. We’re looking for the most significant emissions. It’s a danger for workers, and nearby homes. These sites aren’t in peoples’ backyards, but we know how far emissions can travel by wind.”
The project to attempt to document emissions at extraction sites comes amid significant growth in the industry in New Mexico, in a year that saw a 150 percent increase in active wells, per June 15 data from Baker Hughes.
“We want more eyes on these sites,” Eddy said. “The development is happening really fast. It feels very wild west and out of control. The Permian is on full charge ahead. You can feel it.”
U.S. emissions could be higher than reported
The incident at Sendero came on the heels of a report issued by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) on Thursday, reporting U.S. Oil and Gas methane emissions are 60 percent higher than reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The reports cites data from the “journal Science” pointing to 13 million metric tons of methane released from operations each year.
The study was led by EDF researchers, claiming support from 15 other institutions, read an EDF news release.
The study estimated the leak rate at U.S. oil and gas systems at 2.3 percent, against the EPA’s estimate of 1.4 percent, records show.
New research and more than half a decade of studies into methane emissions went into the report, read the release.
“These studies, synthesized in this Science paper, have transformed our understanding of methane emissions from natural gas systems in the United States,” said Professor David Allen at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, a contributor to the new paper and lead author on several of the earlier studies.
The findings reported included measurements taken at more than 400 well pads and six basins across the country, the release read.
EDF Chief Scientist Steven Hamburg said it was the most “comprehensive” study of methane emissions ever undertaken.
He said reducing methane emissions could increase state revenue if the released gas is instead captured, and sold.
“Scientists have uncovered a huge problem, but also an enormous opportunity,” Hamburg said. “Reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector is the fastest, most cost-effective way we have to slow the rate of warming today, even as the larger transition to lower-carbon energy continues.”
EDF senior Vice President Mark Brownstein called on federal and state governments to increase oversight, and reduce emissions at extraction sites.
The EDF report also called for a 45 percent reduction in methane emissions by 2025, a goal that could have the same benefit as “closing one-third of the world’s coal plants.”
“Federal and state governments must take action – and many states are – but industry leadership remains crucial,” Brownstein said.
"Companies have the ability to lead through operational best practices, comprehensive methane programs, target setting, technology innovation and pilots, and constructively engaging with the regulatory process.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.