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Study finds oil and gas industry largest contributor to ‘hot spot’

NASA found 250 plumes accounting for more than 50 percent of methane emissions

A two-year study released by NASA on Monday confirmed suspicions that energy extraction practices are largely responsible for the methane hot spot in the Four Corners.

“The argument that most of the emissions are from natural seeps, definitely, we can put that to rest,” said Christian Frankenberg, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Most of the plumes we observed were directly related to industrial facilities.”

Shortly after the study was made public, a coalition of local and regional oil and gas associations in Colorado and New Mexico decried NASA’s findings, calling it limited in scope.

“They did not fly the entire outcrop,” Christi Zeller, executive director of the La Plata County Energy Council, said of the area where methane naturally escapes from the Earth’s surface. “We disagree with it (NASA’s study) wholeheartedly. We know and believe the largest sources are that outcrop.”

In 2014, satellite images from space taken between 2003 and 2009 captured a 2,500 square-mile “hot spot” of methane over the Four Corners, which triggered the two-year investigation by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to find more exact sources of methane emissions in the San Juan Basin.

Over the course of two weeks in April 2015, two planes operated by NASA scoured an 80-kilometer by 40-kilometer area in northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado looking for methane sources near the ground in an effort to pinpoint methane leaks.

On Monday, Frankenberg said that the study identified about 250 sites that accounted for more than 50 percent of the total methane emissions in the Four Corners, all of which were energy extraction related. The basin, as a whole, is estimated to release 600,000 metric tons of methane annually.

The aerial survey found natural gas storage tanks, compression stations, processing facilities and venting from the San Juan Coal Mine were the biggest contributors of the methane into the atmosphere.

“It’s not that we can say there’s this part or this part of the industry that’s contributing,” Frankenberg said. “It’s a whole mix.”

Russ Schnell, deputy director of NASA’s Global Monitoring Division, said given that the Four Corners is one of the country’s largest producers of coal-bed methane, with an estimated 20,000 wells, it’s not unusual to see that amount of emissions.

“It’s not a panic situation,” Schnell said. “It’s pretty normal for a gas field of that size for the total amount it’s putting out. But there are a few sites that are putting out the predominate amount of materials.”

Representatives of the oil and gas industry on Monday held to a longstanding counter-argument that methane emissions in the San Juan Basin could not be blamed solely on natural gas production, and that other sources such as natural seeps, landfills and agriculture should be high atop the list.

“NASA’s assessment begins the process of better understanding methane levels in the region, but it addressed a limited set of methane sources,” Steve Henke, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said in a prepared statement.

While Frankenberg said the study does allow some room for error, non-industry methane sources were surveyed and deemed minor.

Though state air-quality officials maintain methane levels do not pose a direct human health and safety risk, they do contribute potent greenhouse gas emissions associated with global climate change. According to the latest data from the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2014 methane accounted for 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

Frankenberg noted the silver lining to the study, claiming that now that emissions in the San Juan Basin are identified, and because they are largely human caused, methane releases can be mitigated.

“This is the good news: With this widespread aerial survey, we can pinpoint to locations that might be the lowest hanging fruit for methane mitigation,” he said.

Indeed, the push to reduce methane emissions is coming from local, state and federal levels, highlighted by President Obama’s call to the oil and gas industry to reduce emissions 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025.

“The EPA and BLM proposals to reduce methane pollution are critical in curbing New Mexico’s methane problem,” Chelsey Evans, a New Mexico field organizer for Moms Clean Air Force, said in a prepared statement. “These rules don’t just protect our kids but create opportunities to put American innovation to work, which benefits both the industry and our communities.”

Oil and gas producers, too, are looking for ways to capture methane, “since it’s the very product they sell,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for Western Energy Alliance.

Sgamma said natural gas producers have reduced emissions by 15 percent since 1990 despite production increasing more than 50 percent during that time.

“Natural gas is the primary reason the United States has reduced greenhouse gas emissions more than any other country,” she said in a written statement.

Regardless, both Frankenberg and Schnell noted the success of the study, the first large-scale sweep of a region to detect greenhouse gas emissions. Surveyors even found two natural gas pipeline leaks and notified the responsible companies.

The researchers said additional studies from NASA and NOAA are in progress, which will further identify sources in the study area.


Four Corners Hot Spot study (PDF)

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