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Democrats are asking 10 oil and gas companies for data on leaks of a planet-warming gas called methane, as these leaks can add significantly to fuels' contributions to climate change.
As part of a new inquiry announced on Friday, House Space, Science and Technology Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) wrote to companies seeking such data.
She wrote to 10 companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, that operate in the Permian Basin producing region in the southwestern U.S. in what she described as an attempt to understand whether their technology can achieve significant emissions reductions.
The inquiry also seeks information about whether and how to strengthen the federal government's role in monitoring methane leaks.
When they're burned, oil and especially natural gas give off fewer planet-warming emissions than coal, and the industry has often touted them as cleaner alternative energy sources.
However, leaks of methane, which is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, can occur during the process of producing and transporting oil and gas. These leaks in turn increase how the fuels contribute to global warming and undercut such assertions from the industry.
Johnson, in her letters, cited a study that found that about 60 percent more methane was leaked in 2015 than was counted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The study attributed the underestimate to inventory methods that do not account for "abnormal operating conditions."
"The existence of these leaks, as well as continued uncertainty regarding their size, duration, and frequency, threatens America's ability to avoid the worst impacts of climate change," Johnson said in a statement. "I am concerned that oil and gas sector Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) programs may not be designed and equipped to comprehensively monitor and detect methane leaks, particularly the intermittent, 'super-emitting' leaks that are responsible for much of the sector's leak emissions."
In the letters, she specifically asked companies whether they have developed estimates of their emissions in the Permian Basin that differ from the EPA estimates.
She also asked them to provide information about how much methane they have leaked annually since 2016.
The letter comes as increased attention has been directed toward methane's contribution to climate change and potency as a greenhouse gas. A report from the United Nations Environment Programme issued in May indicated that a cut of between 40 to 45 percent to methane emissions could potentially avert up to 0.3 degrees Celsius of warming. Some 90 percent of human methane emissions come from the fossil fuel, agriculture and waste industries.
The issue has received congressional scrutiny as well, with varying degrees of support from industry. Many major oil companies were supportive of actions taken by Congress to restore methane regulations that were rolled back during the Trump administration.
But they have been less enthusiastic about a proposed methane fee, which would charge drillers based on how much of the gas they leak into the atmosphere.
The letter also comes as oil majors face scrutiny from the House Oversight and Reform Committee. That committee recently heard testimony from top executives in the industry and issued subpoenas for documents as part of a probe into alleged climate change disinformation.
Asked whether the company would comply with the request, an ExxonMobil spokesperson didn't directly address the congressional correspondence, but instead highlighted the company's support for cutting methane emissions.
"We are committed to working with the U.S. government, the European Commission and other governments to help achieve the objectives of the Global Methane Pledge," spokesperson Casey Norton said via email.
A spokesperson for Pioneer Natural Resources said in a statement that it "look[s] forward to engaging with the Chairwoman and committee staff," while one for Devon Energy said that it will respond to Johnson's request "before or by the deadline" she set for Jan. 21.
"Ameredev will cooperate with the Committee's request, and will work to provide a detailed response to the letter which may take some time," a spokesperson told The Hill in a statement. "We look forward to describing the company's good work in mitigating air emissions through investment in infrastructure and technology."
A spokesperson for ConocoPhillips declined to comment.
The other companies, which in addition to Chevron are Occidental Petroleum, Admiral Permian Resources, Mewbourne Oil and Coterra Energy, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
-Updated at 2:44 p.m.