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Innovative AP team sheds light on methane ‘super emitters’ — invisible and virtually unregulated

In this photo made with an Optical Gas Imaging thermal camera, a plume of heat from a flare burning off methane and other hydrocarbons is detected in the background next to an oil pumpjack as a cow walks through a field in the Permian Basin in Jal, N.M., Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

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It’s difficult enough to write a compelling story about a highly technical subject, harder still to produce a rich visual package on a literally invisible threat — but an all-formats team of AP journalists rose to the challenge.

AP investigative reporter Michael Biesecker was looking for ways to tell the story of the dangers of methane emissions — an extremely potent greenhouse gas that is not adequately regulated. He learned that a handful of companies have been tracking methane using an infrared spectrometer, which measures wavelengths in light to detect and quantify methane in the atmosphere.

Patience and persistence paid off as Biesecker developed a relationship with Carbon Mapper — a joint venture of NASA and university researchers — which shared data with AP on 533 methane “super-emitter” sites in the Permian Basin,a 250-mile-wide expanse along the Texas-New Mexico border. Investigative data journalist Helen Wieffering then mapped those locations,giving Biesecker and photographer David Goldman a trail to follow when they visited the region.

The pair carried a specialized infrared camera that can detect the invisible gas — hardly standard-issue AP gear. Biesecker had persuaded the company that makes the camera to lend it to AP,and Goldman taught himself to use it,resulting in mesmerizing visuals of an otherwise unseeable threat.

Wieffering and Biesecker then cross-referenced the data from Carbon Mapper with state drilling permits,air quality permits,pipeline maps, land records and other public documents to piece together the corporations most likely responsible.

Washington-based video intern Mike Pesoli edited the images and interviews into an illuminating video, and the presentation by immersive storytelling producer Dario Lopez kept visitors to AP News engaged in the first story of its kind to name names alongside the remarkable visuals.

The story was used by more than 200 customers and more than 150 downloaded the video. The piece also had 123,000 pageviews on AP News and scored near the top for AP reader engagement on the day it ran.

The package had impact too: Less than a week later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it was launching an enforcement action and would do the exact analysis AP had just done in order to find methane super emitters in the Permian Basin.

For source building,smart technical reporting,painstaking research and data analysis,innovative photos and video and above all teamwork,Biesecker,Wieffering,Goldman, Pesoli and Lopez are AP’s Best of the Week — First Winners.

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