Here Are America’s Top Methane Emitters. Some Will Surprise You.

As the world’s oil and gas giants face increasing pressure to reduce their fossil fuel emissions, small, privately held drilling companies are becoming the country’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, often by buying up the industry’s high-polluting assets.

According to a startling new analysis of the latest emissions data disclosed to the Environmental Protection Agency, five of the industry’s top ten emitters of methane, a particularly potent planet-warming gas, are little-known oil and gas producers, some backed by obscure investment firms, whose environmental footprints are wildly large relative to their production.

In some cases, the companies are buying up high-polluting assets directly from the largest oil and gas corporations, like ConocoPhillips and BP; in other cases, private equity firms acquire risky oil and gas properties, develop them, and sell them quickly for maximum profits.

The largest emitter, Hilcorp Energy, reported almost 50 percent more methane emissions from its operations than the nation’s largest fossil fuel producer, Exxon Mobil, despite pumping far less oil and gas. Four other relatively unknown companies — Terra Energy Partners, Flywheel Energy, Blackbeard Operating and Scout Energy — each reported emitting more of the gas than many industry heavyweights.

These companies have largely escaped public scrutiny, even as they have become major polluters.

“It’s amazing how the small operators manage to constitute a very large part of the problem,” said Andrew Logan, senior director of oil and gas at Ceres, a nonprofit investor network that commissioned the study together with the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group. “There’s just no pressure on them to do things better. And being a clean operator, unfortunately, isn’t a priority in this business model.”

Nick Piatek, a spokesman for Hilcorp, said the company “spends substantial capital retrofitting and refurbishing aging equipment” at its newly-acquired sites and that its investments would eventually bring down emissions while extending the life of those assets. “We inherit those emissions,” he said.

The analysis, carried out by the energy consultancy M.J. Bradley & Associates using data that companies are required to submit to the E.P.A. Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, highlights the climate consequences of methane.

The main component of natural gas, methane can warm the planet more than 80 times as much as the same amount of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period if it escapes into the atmosphere before being burned. A recent United Nations report singled out the oil and gas industry as holding the greatest potential to cut its emissions from methane, and the Biden administration is in the process of reinstating methane regulations relaxed by President Donald J. Trump.

Blackbeard Operating said that a recent review had revealed the company had overstated its emissions to the E.P.A. and would soon update its numbers. It said one of Blackbeard’s top priorities was reducing emissions from its operations. Terra Energy declined to comment. Flywheel Energy and Scout Energy did not respond to requests for comment.

Still, the findings allow for comparisons between producers in a way other disclosures of emissions do not, underscoring how greenhouse gas emissions can vary dramatically between operators, experts said.

“A comparison is only as good as the actual company-level data is, ” said Drew Shindell, professor of earth science at Duke University and the lead author of the United Nations report on methane. “That said, I do think it’s interesting to see that some of the various high-emissions intensity come from fairly small players that probably hardly anybody’s ever heard of.”

An E.P.A. spokeswoman, Enesta Jones, said the agency was “always working to improve and build on” ways to track emissions.

The new analysis also shows how, as oil and gas giants start a long-awaited shift away from fossil fuels, they are shedding some of their most polluting assets to companies that provide almost no transparency into their operations.

ConocoPhillips said it was unable to comment on the accuracy of the analysis but also said that the company had emissions reduction targets consistent with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

The offloading of aging, high-polluting assets by big fossil fuel companies will very likely intensify. Rystad Energy, an Oslo-based energy consultancy, forecast that, by the end of the decade, the world’s largest oil and gas companies will divest from more than $100 billion of assets as they adjust to the energy transition. Last year, Hilcorp bought BP’s oil and gas business in Alaska.

“The global energy market is on the brink of a major transition to cleaner sources of energy” and oil majors are looking “to streamline their portfolios significantly,” the Rystad analysts said last year. “As a result, several billions of dollars in assets are about to change hands.”

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