NASA finds methane hot spot over Four Corners

The culprit is the extensive fossil fuel industry infrastructure, not just fracking or coal mines.

 

Several years ago, scientists with NASA and the University of Michigan, looking at images made by a satellite spectrometer, noticed a glaring orange and red orb over the Four Corners region, near where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet. The colors indicated methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide, and the concentration there was so much more intense than in other areas that the researchers thought their instruments must be on the fritz.

The orange and red blob near the Four Corners is one of the highest concentrations of methane in the nation.

Turns out their instruments were just fine. The atmosphere? Not so much. In early October, the researchers released the results of their study, which used satellites to “discover a regional signature of large CH4 emissions not seen in prior studies.” The study's title says it all: “Four corners: The largest US methane anomaly viewed from space.”

The findings led to a lot of speculation regarding what was going on in this region. And, perhaps naturally, many of the headlines and sound bites that spilled into the Twittersphere following the study’s release were accuracy-challenged. Some simply blamed “fracking” for the methane releases. Then the Associated Press came out with a story, picked up by many outlets, that attributed the problem to methane venting during coal mining, not fracking. Fuelfix.com took it a step further, with the headline, "Coal, not fracking, blamed for US methane hot spot." None of which quite jives with the study’s actual conclusions.

The hot spot’s boundaries line up fairly closely with the most intensely drilled area of the San Juan Basin, which for decades has been one of the most prolific natural gas, i.e. methane, patches in the nation. Drilling for oil and gas has been going on here since the 1920s. Coal mining and two huge coal power plants were layered on top of that in the '60s and '70s to turn the landscape into a fossil fuel sacrifice zone, and the economy into one dominated by the energy industry.

Yet another drilling frenzy ensued when economically feasible methods were found in the 1980s to extract coalbed methane — natural gas that’s trapped in underground coal formations.* Since then, the land has been increasingly pockmarked by drill pads, thousands of miles of roads and a tangled web of pipelines, compressor stations, processing plants and other oil and gas related infrastructure, helping to make the basin the nation’s biggest source of coalbed methane. As the study found, it’s also the nation’s biggest source of the potent greenhouse gas, accounting for as much as 10 percent of all the methane emissions from natural gas operations in the country.

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The San Juan Basin is riddled with pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure. Scientists believe that leaks in that equipment are a major source of methane emissions in the area.
Jonathan Thompson

Since the shale gas boom erupted in the mid-2000s, scientists have been focusing on methane released during hydraulic fracturing, the process of shooting water and chemicals and sand at extremely high pressure into a drilled well to get the oil or gas flowing from tight shale formations. Given the high volume of oil and gas development in the basin, it wasn’t a stretch to assume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was to blame for the emissions. But the scientists aren’t so sure. From NASA’s press release:

The study's lead author, Eric Kort of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, noted the study period (2003-2009 + 2012) predates the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, near the hot spot. This indicates the methane emissions should not be attributed to fracking …

Actually, coalbed methane wells are, and were, fracked. A 2004 Environmental Protection Agency study delved into the practice, and included a detailed look at fracking CBM wells in the San Juan Basin. Approximately 2,500 coalbed methane wells were operating in the basin in 2001, it says, and “almost every well has been fracture-stimulated, using either conventional hydraulic fracturing in perforated casing or cavitation cycling in open holes.” It’s a fascinating read, particularly for those who think fracking is a newcomer to the energy world.

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Tanks at a refinery in the San Juan Basin.
Jonathan Thompson

That seems to indicate that fracking could have created the hot spot, after all. Yet if it is the primary cause, then other major drilling zones at that time — the Piceance Basin in northern Colorado, the Powder River Basin and Jonah Field in Wyoming — would also be methane emissions hot spots. But they’re not — those places show up as a pale yellow on the map, meaning there’s a higher-than-background level of methane, but nothing like in the Four Corners. Most baffling is that Weld County, a northwestern Colorado sweet spot not only for oil and gas production, but also for cattle feedlots — known methane emitters — does not appear to be a methane hotspot, either. (The second brightest hot spot on the map appears to be above Harris Ranch, California’s largest beef producer, but also near the Bakersfield oil fields).

How about the AP’s read of the study, that the methane was released during coal mining? It’s possible: The same coalbed methane that drillers are after is a hazard to coal miners, and it’s vented from underground mines or released fugitively into the air during surface mining. Surely, that's one source, as the study acknowledges, but probably relatively insignificant. After all, other coal mining regions, most notably the Powder River Basin where mines are many orders of magnitude larger than the three mines in the San Juan Basin, aren’t plagued by glaring hot spots. (I suspect that the AP writer was confusing coalbed methane production with venting methane from coal mines — an honest mistake since the two processes are similar, with different goals).

So what’s the cause? Leaks, says Kort, the study’s author. A bunch of leaks. From wells, from pipelines, from processing plants, maybe even from the coalbeds themselves, where they broach the surface. Nearly one trillion cubic feet of natural gas, i.e. methane, is sucked out of the basin every year, and it all flows through infrastructure that has been around for years, maybe decades, developing fissures, cracks, pinholes, loose valves or the like. Add the sum of all those leaks to the other emissions in the basin, from coal mining, power plants, hydraulic fracturing, drilling and cars and trucks, and it's hardly surprising that the place is a methane hotspot. The region's entire fossil fuel industry, which is immense, is to blame.

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Natural gas equipment in the San Juan Basin.
Jonathan Thompson

It's a discouraging conclusion. If there was just one culprit, such as hydraulic fracturing or coal mine venting, a solution would have been conceivable, if politically challenging to achieve. But if, indeed, thousands upon thousands of tiny leaks and fugitive emissions are to blame, spread out among that dazzling array of infrastructure and equipment, how does one even begin to tackle the issue?

Over the last few years, coalbed methane and other natural gas drilling in the San Juan Basin has been on a sort of hiatus, waiting out the current price slump. But the boom’s bouncing back in the form of fracking-intensive oil drilling in the Mancos Shale. A new wave of drilling will be accompanied by more pipelines, more infrastructure and maybe more leaks. The Four Corners could be a hot spot for years to come.

*The coalbed methane boom raised an interesting question with huge implications: Does the owner of the coal also own the methane? The US Supreme Court ultimately considered the question. Find out what they decided.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He’s based in Durango, Colorado, on the northern edge of the Four Corners methane hot spot.

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