The Inflation Reduction Act incentivizes companies to reduce natural gas leaks. Dominion Energy Wexpro is leading out.

Major gas leaks in the Uinta Basin are contributing to waste and pollution

The Inflation Reduction Act incentivizes companies to reduce natural gas leaks. Dominion Energy Wexpro is leading out.

Methane leakage in the Uinta Basin from the oil and gas industry is a major challenge as it pumps heat-trapping greenhouse gasses into our backyard. The solution? Leak detection and repair—and the sooner, the better.

A study published on November 16, 2021, found that methane emissions approximately halved between 2015 and 2020 in the Uinta Basin, but it coincided with declining gas production. “As a percentage of gas production, however, emissions remained steady over the same years, at ~6–8 percent, among the highest in the U.S,” according to the study.

The study’s researchers contend that addressing methane leaks, and recovering more of the economically valuable natural gas, is critical as our nation seeks to address climate change through aggressive greenhouse emission reductions.

The concern is that human-caused greenhouse gasses have been accumulating for years, and they are already producing widespread environmental effects: ice sheets and glaciers are shrinking, ice from rivers and lakes is breaking apart earlier, plants and trees are blooming sooner and animal geographic ranges are changing.

Scientists have long predicted the effects of global climate change, such as accelerated sea levels, sea ice loss and heat waves that are longer and more intense. Those changes are happening now, but some changes—such as extreme rainfall, droughts, and wildfires—are occurring faster than scientists predicted, according to NASA.

NASA warns us that the future effects of climate change in the U.S. mean the sea level will rise 1-8 feet by 2100; hurricanes will become stronger and more intense; more droughts and heat waves will occur; wildfire season will lengthen; precipitation patterns will change; the global temperature will continue to rise; the frost and growth season will lengthen, affecting ecosystems in agriculture; and before mid-century, the Arctic Ocean is likely to become ice-free. Climate change impacts us all, especially future generations. 

Since the two most potent greenhouse gasses are carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), a conversation about greenhouse gasses in Utah would be incomplete without talking about methane pollution. This is a concern in the Uinta Basin—an area with a concentration of oil and gas companies, both small and large. One can surmise that, as in all industries, the age and maintenance of the utilized equipment can vary widely. A cause for concern when it comes to methane leaks? Absolutely. 

What is methane exactly? Methane is, by definition, a hydrocarbon—an organic compound of hydrogen and carbon found in coal, natural gas, and crude oil—and a greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gasses (GHG) such as carbon dioxide and methane trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, leading to human-caused global warming.

Some of the major sources of methane pollution are oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing “fracking” operations via leaks from old, damaged, or improperly-fitted equipment, as well as gas that’s been intentionally vented. 

With so many active oil and gas companies in the Uinta Basin, not to mention Utah as a whole, methane pollution is, understandably, a cause for concern. Methane gas leakage isn’t only a Utah problem—it’s a global problem. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the global energy sector was responsible for around 135 metric tons of methane emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere in 2021. “Following the Covid-induced decline in 2020, this represents a year-on-year increase in energy-related methane emissions of almost 5 percent, largely due to higher fossil fuel demand and production as economies recovered from the shock of the pandemic,” reports the IEA. 

The IEA reports the energy sector is responsible for around 40 percent of the total methane emissions attributable to human activity, second only to agriculture. “The wasteful leakage of methane, the main component of natural gas, is all the more striking given today’s backdrop of very tight and volatile gas markets,” the report states.

The IEA stated that if the methane leaks from fossil fuel operations in 2021 had been captured and marketed, that would have meant an additional 180 billion cubic meters of gas available on the market—a similar amount to all of the gas used in Europe’s power sector, reports the IEA.

The U.S. government is only recently beginning to understand the scale of our nation’s methane leakage problem, a global problem that has been underreported mainly due to a lack of efficient and consistent measuring techniques. But the sooner we take action to eliminate gas leaks on a local level, the better.

Why is methane a particular concern for Utahns? Natural gas is 95 percent methane, a potent greenhouse gas, according to Logan Mitchell, Ph.D., climate scientist and energy analyst at Utah Clean Energy. 

For his Ph.D., Mitchell measured methane in ice cores that he helped drill in Antarctica. Mitchell says methane contributes to background ozone and exposure to ozone at ground level—an air pollutant linked to a wide range of health impacts, early death, and plant and crop damage.

The science of understanding and measuring methane leakage has been evolving rapidly. Researchers have discovered that seven percent of the gas produced in the Uinta Basin is being leaked into the atmosphere. This wasted energy is also polluting the environment. 

According to Mitchell, the Uinta Basin’s topography and methane leakage have implications for local air quality. Natural gas is composed of 95 percent methane. The remaining five percent includes volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other air pollutants that contribute to the ground-level ozone, he explains.

When those VOCs build up, especially in the winter, there can be extremely high levels of ozone under particular conditions, Mitchell says. “Methane gas can contribute to ozone or air pollution concerns because of the topography of the Uinta Basin and the leakage.” 

Another key point, according to Mitchell, is that methane is increasing globally. The bad news is we don’t know exactly why. The most likely sources of increase are natural gas, livestock and wetlands. As methane concentrations increase in the atmosphere, there will be additional pressure to reduce emissions, Mitchell explains.

The IEA stated that if the methane leaks from fossil fuel operations in 2021 had been captured and marketed, that would have meant an additional 180 billion cubic meters of gas available on the market—a similar amount to all of the gas used in Europe’s power sector, reports the IEA.

Why do methane concentrations matter as much as they do? Because methane is the second-leading source of anthropogenic (human-caused) GHGs after carbon dioxide, it’s responsible for about 20 percent of global emissions. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says methane is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere, and over the last 200 years, methane concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere have more than doubled—we can thank human-related activities for that. 

What are the different sources of methane? Methane comes from a variety of anthropogenic and natural sources (think wetlands). Anthropogenic sources include natural oil and gas systems, the decay of organic waste in landfills, agricultural activities (raising livestock), coal mining, industrial processes, wastewater treatment and the combustion of fossil fuels for transportation.

Mitchell says methane is a potent GHG with a shorter atmospheric lifetime than carbon dioxide; therefore, it’s a good target for near-term climate benefits from reduced emissions. New measures contained within the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) will provide incentives to companies to reduce methane (natural gas) leakages. Those that don’t will be fined. The design of a new Methane Emission Reduction Program is underway, and the program is expected to be enacted in the coming years. 

According to Mitchell, the IRA directed the EPA to develop a program to monitor methane leakage and assess a fee for leaking methane pollution and wasting energy. As such, the EPA is currently determining regulations. Mitchell speculates that by sometime later this year, the EPA will come up with a final rule or plan, but it may be as late as 2028 before their plan is enacted.

“The way the EPA works is they work with states and state regulatory agencies,” Mitchell says. “The EPA is going to require that states submit their plans by a certain date, about a year and a half from now. Then, they have a year to put it in place. Some places might institute that timeline sooner, and some places might take the maximum allowed amount of time.”

I reached out to nearly 10 oil and gas companies in or near the Uinta Basin, and only one agreed to comment—Dominion Energy Wexpro, an exploration and production company (E&P) and a subsidiary of Dominion Energy, which drills and produces oil and gas primarily in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. 

Brady Rasmussen, VP and general manager at Dominion Energy Wexpro, says Wexpro utilizes forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR) cameras to identify leaks on equipment. 

“The FLIR cameras are operated by qualified technicians who are trained to detect gas leaks.  These leaks are typically not quantifiable by just the use of the FLIR camera and would require further technology or equipment to quantify,” Rasmussen says. 

Wexpro performs mandatory leak detection and repair (LDAR) surveys utilizing FLIR camera technology, as well as voluntary inspections on all well locations, he explains. Between the voluntary and mandatory LDAR inspections, Wexpro intends that every production location is inspected with a FLIR camera, at a minimum, annually.

Rasmussen says these inspections allow Wexpro to see methane leaks that are invisible to the human eye. “These leaks are either fixed right at the time of detection, or if parts are required, the leak is flagged for operational personnel to fix at a later date,” he continues.

The leaks are typically repaired within five days of discovery, according to Rasmussen. “The leak repairs can range from changing gaskets or seals or something as simple as tightening packing or a couple of bolts,” he says. “By reducing these leaks on production and midstream assets, Wexpro is keeping this methane in the pipeline and ultimately delivered to customers for use.” 

When asked about what plans Wexpro has in place to reduce methane leakage, Rasmussen says that Wexpro is further working to reduce methane emissions across its footprint that will be affected by the IRA. 

Wexpro has pneumatic controllers on its production sites that utilize methane gas to actuate (open or close) various control valves to keep the well producing, Rasmussen explains. This methane is then vented to the atmosphere per the design of the pneumatic equipment. Wexpro is working on replacing these devices with either no-bleed (meaning they don’t vent) or electric components, he says. 

“The difficulty in replacing it with electric is that the production sites are very remote and do not have utility power. The devices have to be low power consuming direct current devices so that solar panels and batteries can power them,” Rasmussen says. “Wexpro’s plan is to eliminate around 90 percent of the remaining annual Wexpro methane emissions by year-end 2023.”

Hopefully, the other oil and gas companies in the Uinta Basin are tackling the issue and will follow suit.  

Elainna Ciaramella (pronounced Elena Chairamella) was born and raised in Los Angeles, but spent over a decade near Laguna Beach in Orange County, California. After moving to sunny Las Vegas, the “entertainment capital of the world,” her yearning to live close to an outdoor playground brought her to southern Utah, where she now lives a few short miles from Tech Ridge, Atwood Innovation Plaza at Utah Tech, Dixie Technical College, and some of the best trails in the Beehive State. As a researcher, journalist and hopelessly devoted storyteller, she’s spent many full days interviewing founders, CEOs, and C-suite executives from all over the country. Beyond writing, her passions include strength training, art, music, hiking, and reading.