(Bloomberg) -- New Mexico is investigating a methane cloud observed by high-resolution satellite that appears to show the powerful greenhouse gas spewing from an APA Corp. oil and gas facility late last month. 

The probe is at least the fourth state or federal investigation launched in the US in the last several years by regulators alerted to methane releases by Bloomberg News, which tracks emissions of the gas through satellites. The New Mexico cloud is the latest incident to suggest releases of the greenhouse gas from fossil-fuels operations may be more common and intense than is often reported by operators. 

New Mexico authorities said they weren’t aware of the methane plume before being contacted by Bloomberg. APA, formerly known as Apache, wasn’t aware of the methane emissions prior to being informed of them by Bloomberg either. The company sent an initial statement Jan. 13 that an operational upset at a third-party facility triggered emergency flaring at a group of connected storage tanks, without acknowledging a methane release.

APA said in an excess emissions report filed in late January that it discovered the Dec. 24 release on Jan. 23, during a “later investigation'' and “determined the flare pilot failed to light when gas was sent to the flare resulting in venting of the gas to atmosphere.” The operator said it has created a working group to address the malfunction and that corrective actions will be taken once an investigation is complete. Flares are safety devices designed to combust gas when it’s released to avoid a build-up of pressure that can lead to explosions or fire. Methane, which is the primary component of natural gas, has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide during its first 20 years if released directly into the atmosphere. Halting intentional and accidental releases of methane could do more to slow climate change than almost any other single measure. 

The APA flare has an auto-ignite function and workers at the site the day of the upset reported that the flare was lit when they visited, the company said in a statement. “As a result, we believe the release captured by the satellite was likely of limited duration, during a period when the auto igniter was attempting to re-light.’”

Oil and gas companies that can’t halt accidental leaks or intentional releases of methane risk playing a diminished role in the energy transition because natural gas buyers will opt for producers with the cleanest gas as determined through independently verified emissions data driven by observations from satellites and other sensors. 

The New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department is taking the lead in the investigation to determine if any violations occurred, Matt Maez, a spokesperson for the state’s Environment Department, said in an email. 

The plume was observed by the Sentinel-2 satellite on Dec. 24 and had an emissions rate of 5 metric tons of methane an hour, according to an analysis of the data by geoanalytics firm Kayrros SAS. Because the satellite orbits the Earth there was no estimated duration. However, if the release lasted an hour at that rate, it would have the same short-term climate impact as the annual emissions from 91 gasoline powered cars in the US.

Non-emergency flaring and venting of methane should be significantly mitigated or eliminated to avoid the worst of climate change and maintain a pathway toward a net-zero energy system by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency.

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