After a year of intensive study, NASA concluded this week that a massive, unprecedented build-up of methane in the Four Corners region of south western USA has been largely caused by industrial oil and gas activity in the area.
NASA scientists are satisfied that the methane hot spot, which covers over 2,500 square miles and is the largest concentration in the country, possibly the world, has developed as a direct result of leaks from intensive natural gas extraction, processing, and distribution.
Classified as a greenhouse gas, methane is 84 times more efficient than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere. As such, it is a prime contributor to global warming and climate change. While it is odorless, colorless, and hard to detect without scientific instruments, it is also highly flammable. In concentrations dense enough, it can be literally explosive.
There are currently over 20,000 oil and gas extraction operations in the San Juan Basin, the hot spot’s epicenter at the intersection of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. The NASA-led team say just a relatively small number of leaks from this vast number of plants could be causing as much as two thirds of the methane build-up.
NASA first detected the hot spot, which appears on their satellite images as the brightest red dot in the whole of North America, as long ago as 2013. Mystified as to why it was there, a partnership of scientists from NASA, the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and two universities set out in April 2015 to identify the cause.
They identified around 250 plumes of methane, caused by leaks from the oil and gas processing plants, which they believe to be the prime source of the concentration. Leaks from natural and other sources were dismissed as insignificant.
“This does not come as a big surprise. In 2014, according to industry’s self-reported emissions data, oil and gas sources accounted for approximately 80% or methane pollution in the San Juan Basin.”
Quoting a 2015 report from technology consultants ICF, Alvarez went on to add:
“Venting, flaring and leaks from oil and gas sites on federal and tribal land in New Mexico, alone, effectively threw away $100 million worth of gas in 2013 – the worst record in the nation.”
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Featured image by WildEarth Guardians via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.