(Bloomberg) — Texas is investigating why pipeline operator Targa Resources Corp. failed to report an unexpected release of tons of natural gas emissions within 24 hours, as required by state regulations.
Targa disclosed the incident two weeks after it happened and within eight hours after Bloomberg emailed the Houston-based company a satellite image that appears to show a significant cloud of methane near one of its compressor stations in Midland County, Texas. The Jan. 20 incident in the heart of the Permian Basin, the world’s largest shale oilfield, wasn’t reported to state regulators until 4:42 p.m. local time on Feb. 3.
Companies operating in Texas must promptly notify regulators when a malfunction causes the release of more hazardous pollutants than permits allow. The energy industry is under pressure to control emissions releases because methane, the primary component of natural gas, has a particularly devastating impact on the climate. Fossil fuel firms that can’t control emissions risk playing a diminished role in the energy transition as buyers increasingly seek producers with cleaner records.
Targa said the January incident happened when the station’s compressors shut down unexpectedly due to a broken belt, according to its February filing to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. To avoid a dangerous buildup of pressure, safety valves released gas directly into the atmosphere between 10:13 a.m. and 1:33 p.m.
The release matched the timing and location of two satellite observations that appeared to show methane spewing from near the company’s Germania compressor station. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Landsat 8 satellite observed a plume of gas at 11:21 a.m. and the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite detected a release at 11:36 a.m., according to Kayrros SAS. The geoanalytics agency estimated the emissions rate of the plume at 21 metric tons an hour.
Targa said in a statement to Bloomberg that it released 10 tons of methane during repairs. That’s equal to the short-term climate impact of the annual emissions of more than 150 US cars. Targa didn’t answer additional questions, including why it failed to initially report the event to regulators.
Owners and operators of regulated entities in Texas must submit initial notifications to the state regulator within 24 hours of discovery if an emissions event exceeds reportable quantities. Final reports must be submitted within two weeks.
The investigation of the Targa incident is ongoing, the Texas regulator said in a statement. “Based on the results of an investigation of a reportable incident the TCEQ may pursue enforcement actions when appropriate against regulated entities which may include the assessment of a penalty.’’
In the US, operators are set to face fines from the Environmental Protection Agency through rules that will take effect next year if their methane emissions exceed limits, with an initial fee starting at $900 per metric ton.
Targa is the second fossil fuel operator to disclose emissions containing methane to regulators after Bloomberg shared satellite images with the companies that appear to show releases of the potent greenhouse gas near their assets.
New approaches to processing high-resolution observations from public satellites are allowing scientists to detect and attribute methane emissions with far greater precision. The invisible, odorless gas has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide during its first 20 years in the atmosphere and is responsible for approximately 30% of the Earth’s warming since the Industrial Revolution. Halting methane emissions could do more to slow climate change than almost any other single measure.
This isn’t the first time Targa faced scrutiny for its emissions. When a polar blast hit Texas two years ago, triggering widespread power outages and mechanical failures, many industrial facilities burned off or released huge quantities of hazardous gases as they shut down. The worst culprits were two gas processing plants run by Targa that accounted for almost 20% of the state’s total pollution during the freeze, according to the analysis of state records by Air Alliance Houston, Environment Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund.
Although in rare cases deliberate releases from energy operations may be necessary to relieve pressure and avoid a potential explosion, many intentional emissions can be avoided through rigorous maintenance and equipment upgrades.
The issue is beginning to draw regulatory scrutiny as governments look for ways to meet climate goals. Some 150 countries have promised to cut emissions of greenhouse gas by at least 30% by the end of the decade from 2020 levels through the Global Methane Pledge.