Oil

Tracking energy’s ‘fugitive emissions,’ from above

Scientists are trying to understand what’s released from the nation’s biggest energy producing regions.

 

The four-engine turbo-prop plane, built for hurricane research and surveillance, dips low over the pancake-flat plains that sweep from southeastern New Mexico across the Texas border. Huge irrigation circles are tattooed across the land in varying shades of brown and green. Then the well pads appear. From 1,000 feet in the air, they look like hundreds of sandboxes, connected by a maze of dirt roads.

“That’s a lot of wells,” says Joost de Gouw, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Association and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. As the lead researcher tracking the emissions over America’s energy hot spots, de Gouw has flown over oil and gas fields from North Dakota to Pennsylvania. Nowhere, however, has he seen a greater density of drilling operations than here in the Permian Basin, a 250-mile-wide-by-300-mile-long stretch of Texas and New Mexico — the nation’s most prolific oil field.

Wells dot the landscape of the Permian Basin — the most prolific oil field in the nation — on the New Mexico-Texas border.
Alan Levine/cc via flickr

But De Gouw isn’t interested in the energy being produced here; he’s tracking the “fugitive emissions” leaking into the atmosphere. They include substances like methane, an odorless, colorless greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide, on a per-molecule basis, and volatile organic compounds, gases that produce a thick layer of pollution in the atmosphere linked to cancer and other health problems.

As part of NOAA’s Shale Oil and Natural Gas Nexus, or SONGNEX, project, de Gouw and 40 other researchers are trying to quantify those emissions and their effects on everything from the quality of the air we breathe to how much and how fast the planet will warm. Little attention was paid to methane emissions in the past, but with the current energy boom, the amount that’s being pulled from the earth and put into the air is rapidly increasing, and the need to understand emissions is becoming critical.

De Gouw earned his doctorate in atomic and molecular physics, but got into atmospheric science because he wanted to focus on something larger than the interactions of tiny particles no one could see. He has small wire-framed glasses and close-cropped sandy hair, and he speaks calmly, with a trace of a Dutch accent.

The inside of the plane is crammed with people and machinery. Scientists stare at monitors hooked up to air sensors outside the plane. The plane costs $5,000 an hour to operate, and today’s flight will last seven hours. It crisscrosses back and forth across the basin in a grid pattern, to better enable researchers to pinpoint the sources of the emissions.

Joost de Gouw, left, Jessica Gilman of CIRES/NOAA and Drew Gentner of Yale University study readings aboard the NOAA research plane.
David Oonk/CIRES

Methane can come from a variety of sources, from a leaking pipeline to a landfill to a feedlot. So in order to find the source, the researchers must analyze the emission’s chemical signature: If the methane is accompanied by ethane and butane, it comes from oil and gas fields. If not, then it probably comes from somewhere else.

Getting these “top-down” readings from the air is crucial because it can provide a snapshot of an entire region. Previously, most measurements were taken at ground level, directly at a potential emissions source, which meant that scientists had to estimate the full scope of methane leaks and VOC pollution. The lack of concrete data meant anti-drilling proponents could cite certain studies that found high leak rates, while industry proponents could point to studies that found the opposite.

“There was no way to get to rational policy discussion,” says Drew Nelson, an expert on natural gas with the Environmental Defense Fund, which is sponsoring a series of studies to track down methane leaks and quantify them.

After more than 20 flights, de Gouw sees big differences between different basins. Over in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale formation, for instance, the researchers found a leak rate of less than 1 percent, compared to parts of Utah, where it was as high as 11 percent. The discrepancy is partly due to the formation’s composition: In Pennsylvania, it’s almost entirely “dry gas,” but out West, the gas is much wetter and requires a lot more processing before it’s ready for market. The liquid hydrocarbons are separated from the natural gas at the wellhead, and that creates a greater potential for leaks.

But de Gouw suspects that regulations — or the lack of them — also play a role. In Utah’s Uinta Basin, for instance, oil development was supposed to be a short-term project when it began back in the early 1980s. As a result, most pipelines were built aboveground, which is cheaper than burying them, but also leads to higher leak rates. Thirty years later, they’re still in use.

Ahead of us, flames erupt in the Guadalupe Mountains. Oil is almost always accompanied by natural gas, and it’s often not cost-effective for an oil company to build infrastructure to capture the natural gas released during the drilling. So most of the natural gas, along with other unwanted byproducts, is burned off, a process known as “flaring” that releases pollutants like benzene and VOCs into the atmosphere. De Gouw notes his data show that refiners in Utah are sending around 200,000 tons of VOCs into the air each year, double what producers have reported to the EPA.

Does de Gouw believe that methane leaks are cooking the planet faster than previously thought? The scientist won’t say. “I like to keep my opinions out of it,” he says. A moment later, the plane dips precipitously and de Gouw, unaffected by the stomach-churning turbulence, politely excuses himself. He turns toward where his computer sits at the back of the plane:  “I’m going to go see what the data says.”

Return to:

Unlocking the mystery of the Four Corners Methane Hot Spot
High Country News Classifieds
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.