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Emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent in warming the planet than even carbon dioxide, are on the rise. The Permian Basin straddles West Texas and New Mexico in the USA and is the world's largest oil field and a key contributor to global methane emissions. Oil and gas production there has hit record levels following the 2020 price crash.
But that increase in production is driving a surge in methane levels, due in large part to leaky pipes. The bulk of the recent rise in methane emissions has been caused by a handful of gas facilities and oil wells across the Permian. That's 30 facilities pumping out 100,000 tonnes of methane per year, which is equivalent to the pollution produced by half a million cars.
Methane emissions pushed atmospheric levels to a record high last year. Reducing methane emissions is the fastest way of slowing down global warming, as it has 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. The planet has warmed about 1.1 degrees since pre-industrial times, with methane contributing to one third of it.
US President Joe Biden has pledged to tackle methane emissions as part of his climate agenda. He's reinstated laws on plugging oil and gas leaks that were scrapped by Donald Trump. But environmental groups and investors say that the White House's latest proposals to tighten regulation on methane leaks don't go far enough because the new rules exclude oil and gas wells that emit less than three tonnes of methane a year from regular inspections, even though they're responsible for almost half the sector's leaks.
And it's not just human activity, such as energy production, driving the surge in methane levels. Emissions from natural sources, such as cattle, wetlands, and rice paddies, are also on the rise. And researchers haven't determined why. One hypothesis suggests that the increase in natural methane is exacerbated by global warming, which has increased rainfall in methane-producing tropical wetlands. So while tougher regulation can oblige big polluters to do their bit by clamping down on leaks, the rise of methane from natural sources poses yet another challenge for the industry and the planet.