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NASA Study Pinpoints Methane Leaks in San Juan Basin

A NASA study confirmed that a massive methane cloud in the San Juan Basin is primarily caused by emissions from oil and gas production. (iStockphoto)
A NASA study confirmed that a massive methane cloud in the San Juan Basin is primarily caused by emissions from oil and gas production. (iStockphoto)
August 16, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. - A new study by NASA confirms that New Mexico's massive methane cloud in the Four Corners region is primarily caused by emissions from oil and gas production. The space agency used aerial reconnaissance and infrared cameras to map the sources of the leaks that contribute to the 2,500-square mile cloud of methane.

Jon Goldstein, senior energy policy manager with the Environmental Defense Fund, said NASA's study found that just 10 percent of the methane sources account for more than half of the emissions.

"It gives us an important additional piece in the puzzle about this methane hot spot that NASA first discovered from space," he said. "They saw the highest concentration of methane emissions anywhere in the country was a red dot centered over the San Juan Basin."

Goldstein said the study identified more than 250 emission sites in the San Juan Basin, where thousands of oil and gas wells are located. He said the infrared cameras used in the study identified a relatively small number sites, called "super emitters," which were putting out proportionately higher levels of methane pollution.

Goldstein pointed out that methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term, causing as much as 25 percent of the warming attributable to greenhouse gases. He said the study also bolsters the case for implementing the Bureau of Land Management's regulations to limit methane emissions on tribal and public lands.

"NASA is quite literally rocket scientists that conducted the study, but the solutions they put in place are largely plumbing," he added. "Once you detect a leak with infrared camera or hydrocarbon detector, once you find them, it can be something as simple as turning a wrench."

Goldstein said the study will not only help clean up the pollution, but will also result in more gas in the pipeline for companies to sell, resulting in more royalties for the state. The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The full study can be read here.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - NM