Thursday, March 9, 2023

DEP Methane Overflight Research Study Resulted In Voluntary Reductions In Oil & Gas, Landfill Facilities; Coal Industry Uncooperative

On March 9, DEP made a presentation on the results from a research study on detecting and measuring methane emissions sources and rates from aircraft overflights in Pennsylvania to the
DEP Air Quality Technical Advisory Committee.

DEP said one gratifying result of the study were real, voluntary methane reductions achieved when the companies were contacted with the study results in the oil and gas and landfill industries.  The coal industry, unfortunately, did not cooperate, so far.


DEP, in collaboration with Carbon Mapper, Inc. and the U.S. Climate Alliance, conducted a research study in May 2021 to better understand the capabilities of airborne methane detection technology and to gather data on methane emission sources and rates.

The study evaluated the effectiveness of Carbon Mapper's airborne technology as a methane emission data measurement tool to detect methane-emitting sources and measure their corresponding emission rates.

The data obtained by Carbon Mapper was used to evaluate and compare methane emissions across different facilities and industries across Pennsylvania and reduce emissions at a dozen facilities.

Videos: Introduction To Carbon Mapper Technology; Making Methane Visible For Action.

The overflights were conducted in four target county areas: 1- Washington, Greene, part of Fayette; 2- Armstrong, Butler; 3- Tioga, Bradford, Susquehanna; and 4- Schuylkill, parts of Northumberland, Columbia, Luzerne.

During the flights 153 total methane plumes were detected from 91 individual sources, including oil and gas facilities (63 sources), coal mines (18 sources) and landfills (9 facilities).

The analysis shows total emission rates were led by oil and gas facilities at 58.32%; coal mines were second at 37.44%; and landfills third at 3.97%.

In terms of average emissions rates, coal mines came in first at 55.98%; oil and gas facilities second at 24.91% and landfills third at 11.87%.

Sean Nolan, the DEP presenter on the study, said one interesting observation from the images generated in the study was how methane emissions from coal mines flow across the landscape.

“You can see that the methane plumes [from coal mines] actually follow the topography, which is pretty telling. And so, not only are they following based on the wind direction, but they're also flowing in and out of valleys, because of what the topographical differences are out there in southwestern Pennsylvania,” said Nolan.

Sources Detected

Mark Hammond, Director of DEP’s Bureau of Air Quality, said the threshold value of the plumes detected was 100 kg or higher, although the technology could detect lower, but it was a standard number used in other Carbon Mapper projects. 

“There were some sources we expected to see but didn’t, for example agricultural sources.  We all know that cows are methane producers, but they’re not really plume sources, they are more area sources,” said Hammond.  “This technology detects plumes, it doesn’t detect large areas of lower emissions.”

“Every coal mine we flew over was on that list at a very high level [above 100 kg].  If there are 10,000-ish oil and gas sites, 100 out of 10,000 that’s pretty good news.  That’s a lot better than 100 out of 100 like the coal mines,” said Hammond.

“The same with the landfills. There were landfills on that overflight that had no detections, lots of oil and gas that had no detections, obviously no agriculture detections.  You need to be a little careful comparing those numbers across the different industries in terms of 100 out of 10,000 is very different than 14 out of 14,” said Hammond.

In response to a question about prior notice of the overflights, Hammond said there was no prior notice of the flights because DEP wanted to capture “normal” conditions in the data.

“As you can guess there were some people who were very unhappy about getting prior notice-- ‘why didn’t you talk to us about this’-- but that’s the way you do a research project,” said Hammond.

Volunteer Emission Reductions

Twelve facilities instituted mitigation strategies to combat methane emissions which led to an approximately 10 percent reduction in emissions from oil and gas and landfill facilities that were part of this study.

“This was a research project, this was not intended to be an inventory,” explained Hammond. “We’re delighted to get 10% [voluntary reductions] with no regulatory authority to have someone do anything.”

“One of my favorite parts of this was we got about four or five brand-new best practices from operators-- several in the landfill industry and several from the oil and gas-- things that are not being done commonly in those industries,” said Hammond. “One of them in the landfill industry was developed specifically because of this study.”

“We are hoping to do outreach in those industries… specifically with the companies that provided those best practices,” said Hammond.  “We made a calculation beforehand that operators cooperating voluntarily drive more emission reductions than using our enforcement.”

“The oil and gas and landfill industries were very cooperative and got real reductions.  One of the other industries wasn’t,” said Hammond.  “I think ‘hostile’ would be the word I would use, but this was for a research project.”

“One of the companies-- it’s all public record, you can Right To Know everything about them-- Consol Energy-- was extremely hostile, threatened criminal action against the Department for flying the plane over their property and a bunch of other just ridiculous assertions.”

“Every operator that had a plume, we offered to meet with them and to explain the project and go over the data and at the end of that meeting our ask was can you go see if you can find this in the field and if possible reduce it,” said Hammond.

“The coal industry met with us, heard our presentation, we also asked them if there was a plume on their property that wasn’t near a vent, we asked them to take a look at that,” explained Hammond. “We never got any useful information from them, although their outside [legal] counsel continued to communicate with us in writing.”

Report/Data Coming

“We have a version one of the report.  It had been shared with the operators who cooperated with us.  It was not shared with operators who didn’t cooperate with us,” said Hammond. “It will be posted on our website next week, we’re shooting for next week.”

DEP also noted the preliminary data for the DEP overflights is on the Carbon Mapper website.

Click Here for a copy of DEP’s presentation.

Visit DEP’s Air Quality Technical Advisory Committee webpage for available handouts and presentations.  Questions should be directed to John Tissue at

(Photos: top- oil & gas, coal mines; landfill; map of target areas.)

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[Posted: March 9, 2023]  PA Environment Digest

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