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We deployed a helicopter with an infrared optical gas imaging camera to detect hydrocarbon emissions from 3,428 oil and gas facilities (including 3,225 producing oil and gas well pads) in Utah’s Uinta Basin during winter and spring 2018. We also surveyed 419 of the same well pads from the ground. Winter conditions led to poor contrast between emission plumes and the ground, leading to a detection limit for the aerial survey that was between two and six times worse than a previous summertime survey. Because the ground survey was able to use the camera’s high-sensitivity mode, the rate of detected emission plumes was much higher in the ground survey (31% of all surveyed well pads) relative to the aerial survey (0.5%), but colder air temperatures appeared to impair plume detection in the ground survey as well. The aerial survey cost less per facility visited, but the ground survey cost less per emission plume detected.

Well pads with detected emissions during the ground and aerial surveys had higher oil and gas production, were younger, were more likely to be oil well pads, and had more liquid storage tanks per pad relative to the entire surveyed population. The majority of observed emission plumes were from liquid storage tanks (75.9% of all observed plumes), including emissions from pressure relief valves and thief hatches on the tank or from piping that connects to the tank. Well pads with control devices to reduce emissions from tanks (combustors or vapor recovery units) were more likely to have detected emissions. This finding does not imply that the control devices themselves were not functioning properly. Instead, gas was escaping into the atmosphere before it reached control devices. Pads with control devices tended to be newer and have higher oil and gas production, which probably explains their higher rate of detected emissions.