KUNM

The Hunt For The Source Of Four Corners Methane

Apr 24, 2015

Image via NASA: "The Four Corners area (red) is the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this map showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan."
Credit NASA

Scientists published a paper on methane levels across the globe last year—and their satellite images show the largest methane anomaly in the United States hovers over northwestern New Mexico. Now, some of the nation’s top scientists have come here to figure out where all that methane’s coming from.  

The satellite image of the methane plume splashed across the national and international news last fall. And it’s easy to see why: the Four Corners shows up as an ugly welt of yellow, red and orange surrounded by cool greens and blues.

Oil and gas drilling is among the industries contributing to high concentrations of methane in the Four Corners.
Credit Laura Paskus

But Eric Kort, the lead author on the methane paper, said you have to be careful interpreting that image. “It's easy to look at that image and think that it means that the most emissions are coming from this region,” he said. “But it's not an image of emissions, it's an image of concentrations of the gas. It does not at all mean that it’s the highest emissions region. Those are different things.”

Kort was in Farmington last week to explain the findings to local citizens, governmental officials, land managers and activists.  

“What we see over Four Corners is we see more methane than in the surrounding area,” he said, “and this is due to both the emissions in the region and the nature of the winds, so those emissions tend to stay concentrated there a little more.”

That’s an important point. It’s not just methane emissions. The landscape here and the wind patterns also affect the concentrations.

Eric Kort, of the University of Michigan, spoke in Farmington last Friday at the methane science forum.
Credit Laura Paskus

And this work isn’t just important for New Mexico or the Southwest.

Methane is a greenhouse gas. It contributes to climate change. And as greenhouse gases go, methane is about thirty times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The methane in the Four Corners comes from coal mines, coalbed methane wells, and tens of thousands of natural gas wells. In the past year, new oil wells have also been drilled. All of the industries include infrastructure.  

Cows, landfills, and wastewater treatment plants also produce methane.

To try and understand where it’s all coming from—specifically—Owen Sherwood has been driving around the highways and back roads of the Four Corners. He’s with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Owen Sherwood has been driving around the highways and back roads of the Four Corners. He’s with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Credit Laura Paskus

His truck’s outfitted with special equipment and a long mast on top. The whole thing was engineered by the lab manager where Sherwood works. “For better or worse,” laughed Sherwood, lab manager Bruce Vaughn has “leant his truck to the services of doing science.”

Different sources of methane have different signatures, Sherwood said. If you study those, you can figure out whether the methane is from a feedlot, or oil and gas drilling. Or even from forest fires.

“They all have unique fingerprints,” he said. “And we can use that information to discern where the methane is coming from.”

Scientists from NOAA are also driving around the Four Corners, capturing data about methane emissions. Pictured here are Ingrid Mielke-Maday, Gabrielle Petron, and Eryka Thorley.
Credit Laura Paskus

While Sherwood and other federal scientists drive around, NASA is taking to the skies.

Christian Frankenberg is with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He worked with Kort on that methane anomaly paper. Studying methane from satellite images is one thing. Getting new data first hand—by flying through the plume—is quite another.

“This is exciting,” he said, “something that came from space and now we suddenly drive around with a van like our NOAA colleagues and we will fly our aircraft and have all the different levels that we can use, basically, to study this area.”

And New Mexicans are eager to know what’s going on, too. More than 200 people squeezed into a hall at San Juan College in Farmington last Friday to hear Kort, Frankenberg and others speak.

Christian Frankenberg, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, spoke in Farmington about the Four Corners methane anomaly.
Credit Laura Paskus

Tom Singer, with the Western Environmental Law Center, was there. He thinks public involvement is really important.  

The energy industry reports its emissions and regulators track those inventories. But as the satellite images show, those numbers don’t match what’s actually out there.

“The industry is providing a lot of information to these studies about where equipment and infrastructure is,” he said, “and they need watchdogs. More than one person needs to be watching over their shoulder.”

As scientists collect more data – from vans and trucks and airplanes and satellites—it will take at least a year to analyze and review those results. And then, share them with policy makers and the public.

Funding for KUNM’s series Drilling Deep comes from the New Venture Fund.