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Climate impact of offshore drilling has been greatly underestimated

A recent study led by a team of researchers from the University of Michigan has revealed that the Gulf of Mexico’s largest offshore fossil fuel production basin may have double the climate-warming impact previously estimated. 

The team conducted direct measurements of greenhouse gas emissions from an airplane flying over the area. This is a first-of-its-kind approach that could have implications for future energy production in the region.

Decisions on expanding oil and gas extraction in the Gulf of Mexico depend on calculations of the climate impact of such operations. Although researchers have previously noted discrepancies between reported and measured methane emissions in the basin, the latest study is the first to quantify methane and carbon dioxide emissions and pinpoint the main sources of these emissions. 

The research discovered that older platforms located closer to land emit far more methane than government inventories report.

“What we found is that a certain type of shallow water platform had large methane emissions that elevated total greenhouse gas emissions for the entire Gulf of Mexico,” said study co-author Professor Eric Kort. He added that targeting mitigation efforts at those sources could have a significant positive effect on reducing emissions.

The researchers carried out their atmospheric measurements by flying in a cylindrical pattern around the platforms, measuring the amounts of carbon dioxide and methane released. They combined aircraft measurements with all previous field surveys to compile the largest sample size of Gulf of Mexico platform greenhouse gas emissions. Their observations quickly identified specific oil and gas production operations with higher emissions.

The primary culprits were found to be larger “central-hub” multiplatform complexes that collect oil and gas from smaller production platforms for processing. These complexes were found to emit more methane than expected due to direct venting into the atmosphere or releases from tanks and other equipment. 

The study suggests that simple steps, such as capturing the gas, flaring it instead of venting, repairing or abandoning facilities, could have significant climate benefits.

The research follows a similar study published in September by the same team, which demonstrated that inefficient flaring operations on land released five times more methane than anticipated. Both studies emphasize the need for a more comprehensive method of assessing greenhouse gas emissions and the climate impact of oil and gas production for specific regions. 

Climate impact is determined by “carbon intensity,” a metric that measures the levels of greenhouse gases emitted per unit of oil or gas produced.

Decreasing carbon intensity involves reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced per unit of energy or economic activity. Various strategies can be employed to achieve this goal, including the following:

  1. Energy efficiency improvements: Enhancing the energy efficiency of buildings, industrial processes, and transportation systems can significantly reduce carbon intensity. This may involve adopting energy-saving technologies, improving insulation, and implementing efficient heating and cooling systems.
  2. Renewable energy sources: Shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal power reduces greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy production. Increasing the share of renewables in the energy mix helps lower carbon intensity.
  3. Electrification: Replacing combustion engines in vehicles and other equipment with electric alternatives can decrease carbon intensity, especially when the electricity used comes from renewable energy sources.
  4. Carbon capture and storage (CCS): This technology involves capturing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and industrial facilities and storing them underground. CCS can help reduce the carbon intensity of fossil fuel-based energy production.
  5. Sustainable agriculture and land management: Implementing sustainable agricultural practices and land management techniques, such as no-till farming, cover cropping, and afforestation, can reduce carbon intensity by increasing carbon sequestration in soils and vegetation.
  6. Circular economy and waste reduction: Emphasizing recycling, reusing, and reducing waste can help lower carbon intensity by decreasing the demand for raw materials and energy-intensive production processes.
  7. Energy-efficient supply chains: Streamlining supply chains, optimizing transportation logistics, and using energy-efficient technologies can contribute to reduced carbon intensity across various sectors.
  8. Encouraging behavioral change: Promoting public awareness and encouraging energy-saving behaviors, such as using public transportation, carpooling, or bicycling, can help decrease carbon intensity by reducing overall energy consumption.
  9. Policy and regulatory measures: Governments can implement policies and regulations that incentivize low-carbon technologies, discourage high-carbon activities, and promote energy efficiency, thereby reducing carbon intensity.
  10. Research and innovation: Investing in research and development of new low-carbon technologies and processes can lead to breakthroughs that significantly reduce carbon intensity across various sectors.

Implementing these strategies in a coordinated manner can help decrease carbon intensity and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

“We have presented the climate impact of both oil and gas production as an observation-based carbon intensity. This metric reflects a snapshot of real-time climate impacts and offers an easy way to integrate the growing number of field surveys of emissions from fossil fuel production into a consistent metric,” said study first author Alan Gorchov Negron, a U-M graduate student research assistant.

He added that consistent metrics like this could be used to make policy or investment decisions that minimize the climate impacts of fossil fuels in the future. 

The study involved researchers from Stanford University, Scientific Aviation, Carbon Mapper, and the Environmental Defense Fund. The research was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, with additional support from the Environmental Defense Fund, Scientific Aviation, and U-M’s Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering and Graham Sustainability Institute.


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