As the world’s oil and gas giants face increasing pressure to reduce their fossil fuel emissions, small, private drilling companies become the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the country, often by buying up the industry’s polluting assets.
According to a startling new analysis of the latest emissions data disclosed to the Environmental Protection Agency, five of the ten largest emitters of methane, a particularly powerful planet-warming gas in the industry, are little-known oil and gas producers, some of whom have been through obscure investments It supports companies whose ecological footprint is very large in relation to their production.
In some cases, the companies buy up polluting assets directly from the largest oil and gas companies like ConocoPhillips and BP; in other cases, private equity firms acquire risky oil and gas properties, develop them, and sell them quickly for maximum profits.
The largest emitter, Hilcorp Energy, reported nearly 50 percent more methane emissions from its operations than the country’s largest fossil fuel producer, Exxon Mobil, despite producing far less oil and gas. Four other relatively unknown companies – Terra Energy Partners, Flywheel Energy, Blackbeard Operating, and Scout Energy – said they each emit more gas than many other industry heavyweights.
These companies have largely escaped public scrutiny even though they have become major polluters.
“It’s amazing how the small operators make up a huge part of the problem,” said Andrew Logan, senior director of oil and gas at Ceres, a nonprofit investor network that conducted the study along with the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental organization Gave order to group. “You just don’t have any pressure to do things better. And unfortunately, being a clean operator is not a priority in this business model. “
Nick Piatek, a Hilcorp spokesperson, said the company is spending “significant capital on retrofitting and refurbishing aging equipment in its newly acquired facilities, and that its investments will eventually reduce emissions while extending the life of those equipment. “We inherit these emissions,” he said.
The analysis carried out by energy consultancy MJ Bradley & Associates based on data that companies must submit to the EPA Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program shows the climate risk of methane.
Methane, the main constituent of natural gas, can heat the planet over 80 times as much over a period of 20 years as the same amount of carbon dioxide if it were released into the atmosphere before being burned. In a recent United Nations report, the oil and gas industry was believed to have the greatest potential for reducing its methane emissions, and the Biden administration is in the process of reintroducing methane regulations eased by President Donald J. Trump.
Blackbeard Operating said a recent review found the company overstated its emissions to the EPA and will update its numbers soon. One of Blackbeard’s top priorities is reducing emissions from operations. Terra Energy declined to comment. Flywheel Energy and Scout Energy did not respond to requests for comment.
The analysis is also associated with significant limitations. EPA 2019 data includes emissions from drilling and fracking sites, but excludes emissions from offshore drilling and some parts of the oil and gas supply chain such as pipelines or processing plants. Recent research has shown that official data is likely to grossly underestimate actual emissions from oil and gas exploration, in part because it fails to properly account for leaks from equipment, which can be a significant source of emissions. Badly maintained locations often mean more leaks that go undetected longer, making them very polluting.
Still, the results allow for comparisons between manufacturers in ways that other emissions disclosures don’t, and underscore how greenhouse gas emissions can vary dramatically between operators, experts said.
“A comparison is only as good as actual company-level data,” said Drew Shindell, professor of earth sciences at Duke University and lead author of the United Nations report on methane. “But I think it’s interesting to see that some of the various high emission intensities come from relatively small players that hardly anyone has ever heard of.”
An EPA spokeswoman, Enesta Jones, said the agency is “always working to improve and build on emissions tracking capabilities.”
The new analysis also shows how oil and gas giants, with the long-awaited move away from fossil fuels, are giving up some of their most polluting assets to companies that offer almost no visibility into their operations.
“They have an industry that is in a sense of its decline,” said Kathy Hipple, finance professor at Bard College. “It’s getting ugly.”
When ConocoPhillips sold its old gas wells in the San Juan Basin in northwest New Mexico to Hilcorp Energy in 2017, it deposited a troubled and aging operation that had weighed on earnings. The fossil fuel giant has also shed heavily polluting assets.
That year, ConocoPhillips reported that its greenhouse gas emissions had decreased by about 20 percent. In 2018 it became a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council, a coalition of companies calling for a carbon tax.
But these emissions have not simply disappeared. Hilcorp Energy, owned by Houston-based billionaire Jeff Hildebrand, was a top polluter, according to EPA data.
Hilcorp, which has grown by buying up decades of oil and gas facilities, has the highest methane emissions in the country, despite being the 13th largest producer of gas, according to the new analysis. Hilcorp’s methane emission intensity, or leak rate, was nearly six times the average of the top 30 manufacturers, largely due to the high emissions from its aging San Juan operation.
“So nothing has changed from a climate point of view, although it certainly made ConocoPhillips look a lot better,” said Logan of Ceres.
ConocoPhillips said it was unable to comment on the accuracy of the analysis but also said the company has emission reduction targets in line with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperature rise less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels .
The relocation of aging, polluting assets by large fossil fuel companies is very likely to increase. Rystad Energy, an Oslo-based energy consultancy, predicts that by the end of the decade, the world’s largest oil and gas companies will sell more than $ 100 billion in assets as they adjust to the energy transition. Last year, Hilcorp bought BP’s Alaska oil and gas business.
“The global energy market is on the verge of a major transition to cleaner energy sources,” and oil companies want to “tighten their portfolios significantly,” said Rystad analysts last year. “As a result, billions of dollars in assets will change hands.”
Terra Energy Partners, supported by the Warburg Pincus investment fund, joined the fracking boom in 2015 and became one of the largest natural gas producers in Colorado.
Firms like Terra wanted to make quick money by buying up oil and gas wells, ramping up production, and selling them for a decent profit. But these ventures struggled as a glut of production led to a collapse in natural gas prices. The Covid-19 pandemic has further disrupted the industry.
To address this, Terra has reduced operating costs at its oil and gas production sites by about 30 percent, which has enabled the company to generate significant cash flow and return capital to shareholders despite weak natural gas prices. Terra now ranks fourth in the industry on methane emissions, ahead of fossil fuel giant BP, despite producing less than a fifth of its output. Warburg Pincus declined to comment.
Terra’s private equity competitors Flywheel Energy, Blackbeard Operating and Scout Energy are also among the top ten methane emitters. Overall, the 195 micro-producers included in the report together account for only 9 percent of production, but they are responsible for 22 percent of total reported emissions. Bankruptcies have also increased, raising concerns about an increasing number of orphaned or abandoned wells.
Now that oil prices are recovering, there is concern that these private equity backed companies will take one final step to get as much out of their investments as possible. Private shale drilling and fracking have been a major driver of the recent surge in US oil and gas drilling.
“When profits are cut, cash flows are cut,” said Ms. Hipple, the Bard professor, “safety protocols and pollution are not being followed as they should.”
It is true that the large producers remain large emitters. For overall greenhouse gas emissions, Exxon Mobil reported the highest numbers in the industry in 2019, a record expected to become a top priority as the company grapples with two climate-minded directors recently elected to its board of directors by shareholders, who are increasingly suspicious of climate change are taking risks. Many of the oil and gas giants have joined voluntary industry-wide initiatives to reduce emissions.
Experts point out that leak detection and monitoring technology has become more sophisticated in recent years, and scientists expect satellites will soon be used to monitor methane emissions from space in real time. Replacing obsolete equipment that uses gas pressure to operate equipment in locations with no electricity would also reduce methane releases, as would maintenance of storage tanks and compressors, and the avoidance of flaring and venting.