How is ConocoPhillips reducing methane emissions?

San Juan Gas Plant
Why is ConocoPhillips the largest emitter of methane among oil and gas companies in the U.S. and what are you doing about it?

ConocoPhillips is a large producer of natural gas with thousands of gas wells. Since emissions estimates are based on factors such as throughput and equipment count rather than direct measurement of fugitive gas, the largest producers with the most equipment will report the highest emissions. It should also be noted that while we have the highest aggregate emissions, we rank tenth in estimated emissions per well, according to data reported through the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (GHGRP).

Our commitment to reduce emissions

We’re concerned about emissions and we’ve been taking action to reduce them for more than eight years - with a large number of operating wells, even small emissions add up. Managing methane emissions is a critical aspect of our well management principles, and we are focused on reducing actual emissions with a voluntary multi-year program of equipment optimization and replacement. We have reduced or prevented the release of 9 billion cubic feet of methane emissions from our facilities in the in the U.S. Lower 48 states over the last five years. At our operations in the San Juan Basin, which account for approximately two thirds of our total onshore emissions of methane in the lower 48 states, we reduced CO2e emissions by 48 percent in 2014 and 26 percent in 2015. Our reductions have mainly come from replacing pneumatic devices and optimizing plunger lifts on our existing wells. While regulations restrict the use of high-bleed pneumatic devices on new installations, we have voluntarily replaced most existing high-bleed devices with lower-emitting controllers across our well operations.  We are pleased that a study of the EPA’s 2015 EPA’s GHG reporting program data has highlighted our efforts to cut methane emissions in the San Juan Basin and that the EPA data shows that even though we operate the third largest number of wells in the U.S., we rank tenth on estimated methane emissions per well, emitting 16 percent less, on average, than the highest-per-well emitting companies.

In our Lower 48 Business Unit, audio, visual, olfactory (AVO) inspections are routinely performed as part of operator rounds to identify any leaks or other issues. At many of our locations, particularly those with control devices and at compressor stations, we have instituted a periodic (typically annual) voluntary fugitive monitoring program using forward looking infrared (FLIR) optical gas imaging (OGI) cameras to enhance our leak detection and repair (LDAR).

We are also investigating potential new technology systems to better detect and quantify methane emissions. In 2015, we piloted Rebellion Photonics’ Gas Cloud Imaging (GCI) technology on multiple wells and several hundred pieces of equipment. This technology is designed to detect and quantify methane releases in real-time. Recent studies published are attempting to improve emission detection in the Four Corners region where the San Juan Basin is situated. We encourage studies such as this and we support study and research into finding better ways of monitoring and identifying methane emissions.

Important things to understand about how emissions are calculated and reported

Oil and gas producers are required to report their methane emissions to the EPA on an annual basis as part of its GHGRP. 

The GHGRP reporting methodology is based on prescribed formulas and factors and not actual or measured emissions. The estimates are produced by multiplying various elements such as equipment count, horsepower, throughput, and fuel consumption by a set of prescribed emission factors. This estimate is influenced by the location, design, equipment type, and configuration of a well site. One consequence of this methodology is that emissions from some well sites may be artificially amplified relative to others, simply because the equipment is located in a different part of the country. 

While the EPA data and a recent report analyzing that data are largely based on emission estimation, there are also uncertainties associated with measurement methodologies that proport to “actually” measure emissions but are heavily dependent on assumptions and extrapolations.  There are a number of detailed “bottom-up” and “top-down” methodologies described in studies that we have analyzed. Studies which measure broad atmospheric emissions, “hot spots” and emissions at the well site can all help us understand where emissions are occurring but quantifying the actual emissions remains elusive.

Some reasons why it is difficult to get an accurate picture of actual emissions from the EPA report include:

  • The method used by the EPA does not allow for the differences in facility design and construction. 
  • Sites that share infrastructure with others via a centralized processing unit do not have to report any emissions at this point in time, but will have to do so in 2017. 
  • For some sources, different EPA regions prescribe different activity factors and emission factors. For example, facilities located in the western part of the U.S. can have an emissions factor over 25 times greater than an identical unit based in the east.

We believe these issues contribute to the higher methane emissions estimated for our San Juan operations, which are reported according to the protocol for EPA’s Western region. We are the largest producer in the San Juan basin and have over 9,600 producing natural gas wells spread across 1.3 million net acres of leases. Our wells are older, with 70 percent drilled and completed prior to 2000.  Nearly all of them are single wells designed and commissioned before centralized facilities became the norm and due to their age and remote location, none of our facilities in the San Juan Basin are electrified.

Watch our progress

We report our actions and results on emissions reductions in our Climate Change Action Plan and we expect our emissions in the U.S. to continue to decline, but probably at a slower rate since most of the reduction opportunities using existing technology have already been completed. We are currently evaluating several new technologies for their potential feasibility, cost effectiveness, and emissions recovery potential. Our focus will continue to be on identifying voluntary projects that improve our overall performance by reducing emissions.