WASHINGTON (AP) — Two Texas companies have resolved Clean Air Act violations with the Environmental Protection Agency by agreeing to reduce emissions of planet-warming methane and other harmful pollutants wafting from the nation's largest oil and gas producing region.
EPA announced Monday that Matador Production Company has agreed to pay $6.2 million in fines and mitigation measures related to 239 oil and gas well pads in New Mexico. Permian Resources Operating agreed earlier this month to pay $610,000 and make improvements to its equipment to settle environmental violations.
The enforcement actions came after EPA flew a helicopter equipped with a special infrared camera that can detect emissions of hydrocarbon vapors that are invisible to the naked eye.
EPA announced a new round of overflights in August, four days after publication of an investigation by The Associated Press that showed 533 oil and gas facilities in the region are emitting excessive amounts of methane and named the companies most responsible.
Colorless and odorless, methane makes up about 95 percent of natural gas and a potent greenhouse pollutant that traps 83 times more heat in the atmosphere over a 20 year period than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.
The AP used 2021 data from the group Carbon Mapper to document massive amounts of methane venting into the atmosphere from “super emitters” across the Permian Basin, a 250-mile-wide bone-dry expanse along the Texas-New Mexico border.
A partnership of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and academic researchers, Carbon Mapper used an airplane carrying an infrared spectrometer to detect and quantify the unique chemical fingerprint of methane in the atmosphere. Hundreds of sites were shown persistently spewing the gas across multiple overflights.
EPA has said the timing of its 2022 overflights was not related to AP’s story and that similar aerial surveillance had been conducted in years past. The federal complaint filed against Matador said unlawful emissions were observed in 2019, while Permian Resources was cited for evidence collected during overflights in 2020.
EPA spokesman Timothy Carroll said federal regulators have initiated additional enforcement actions based on the agency's 2022 flyover. He declined to provide the number of additional companies currently facing potential sanctions, citing the ongoing investigations.
Methane emissions in themselves are not illegal under current federal law, but the Clean Air Act does regulate other pollutants also contained in the gasses emitted during fossil fuel production, such as volatile organic compounds that contribute to health problems including asthma, lung infections, bronchitis and cancer.
“Air quality in the Permian Basin is at risk of not meeting national standards,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. "We will continue to work with the State of New Mexico to ensure that oil and gas production operations are operating within the law to improve air quality and public health in surrounding communities.”
EPA said its settlement with Matador will result in a reduction of more than 16,000 tons of air pollutants that are harmful to human health. There will be additional reduction in emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases equal to about 31,000 tons of carbon dioxide — equal to taking more than 6,000 gasoline-powered vehicles off the road for one year.
Emails and a voicemail seeking comment from Matador Resources Company, the Dallas-based corporate parent of Matador Production Company, received no response.
Emails to Permian Resources, based in Midland, Texas, also received no response. The voicemail for a phone number at the company listed for media inquires was not accepting new messages on Tuesday.
Follow AP Global Investigative Reporter Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck