Flying over the Gulf reveals twice as much CO2 than officials state

New research finds the climate impact of Gulf offshore oil and gas production is two times more than inventories report.
Sade Agard
US oil industry concept image
US oil industry concept image


According to new research which involved flying an airplane over the Gulf of Mexico to obtain direct measurements of greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S' largest offshore fossil fuel production basin has double the climate warming impact as official estimates.

 The findings — published on April 3 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — may impact future energy production in the Gulf since decisions about increasing oil and gas extraction are based on assessments of the impact on the climate.

Gulf of Mexico - The U.S.' main offshore source

The Gulf continues to produce 97 percent of all U.S. offshore oil and gas, making it the nation's main offshore source.

Although there has historically been a discrepancy between reported and observed methane emissions in the basin, this study is thought to be the first to quantify methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions as well as pinpoint the primary offenders. 

Researchers from the University of Michigan (UM) discovered methane emissions from older platforms closer to land are much higher than those listed in government inventories. Still, they contend that taking a few simple tips might significantly reduce those emissions.

They flew upward and downward in a cylinder pattern around the platforms to make their atmospheric observations, measuring the amounts of CO2 and CH4 released. 

 "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 co-author Eric Kort in a press release, a UM associate professor of climate and space sciences and engineering. 

Flying over the Gulf reveals twice as much CO2 than officials state
Large multiplatform complexes like this that are close to land, are identified as culprits

Such sources are described as "larger "central-hub" multiplatform complexes that gather oil and gas from smaller production platforms for processing. As a result of direct venting into the environment or discharges from tanks and other equipment, sampling revealed that these produce more methane than was anticipated. 

Actions to reduce these significant methane emissions, such as capturing the gas, flaring it rather than venting it, or fixing or closing down facilities, might substantially affect the climate. 

The results are consistent with research from the same team that revealed ineffective flaring operations on land were unintentionally releasing five times more methane into the atmosphere than predicted.

"We have presented the climate impact of both oil and gas production as an observation-based carbon intensity," said first author Alan Gorchov Negron, a UM graduate student research assistant.

He added that this metric offers a simple way to provide a glimpse of real-time climate impacts. 

"Moving forward, policy or investment decisions can use consistent metrics such as this to choose fossil fuels from locations that minimize their climate impacts," he concluded.