FARMINGTON, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s a scientific mystery: Why is there a giant plume of methane hovering over the Four Corners region?
Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other agencies are spending the month in New Mexico and Southern Colorado to try to figure it out.
Images picked up by a European satellite, published last year, show the nation’s largest plume of methane is hanging over the San Juan Basin. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
“You infer there’s likely some local sources that contribute to the levels that were identified by the satellite, but it doesn’t tell you which sources are contributing and by how much,” said Gabriele Pétron, one of the investigators for the project and a scientist with the University of Colorado Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). The resulting data “will help decision-makers make informed decisions about what sources to try to mitigate,” Pétron said.
Scientists say the likely sources for the methane are probably venting from oil and gas activities, active coal mines and natural gas seeps.
In addition to NOAA, NASAJPL, and CIRES, several other institutions are joining the efforts, including the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and the University of California, Davis.
Researchers will use very sensitive instruments on the ground and in the air to determine how much and where the methane is coming from.
NASA JPL participants will spend a week flying aircraft equipped with spectrometers that will map the methane.
“It’s similar to the satellites, just at much finer detail,” said Christian Frankenberg, a research scientist at the JPL, based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “This way, we anticipate that we can disentangle the sources of methane in the area and explain the contributions that constitute the enhancements seen from space.”
The New Mexico Environment Department’s Air Quality Bureau places air monitors around the state to measure regulated pollutants, but methane isn’t regulated. “As the science emerges around detection of elevated methane levels in the region, NMED is keeping a close eye on the data and associated issues,” NMED spokesperson Allison Majure told News 13 in an email.
The New Mexico Oil & Gas Association said the research work of NOAA, NASA and others are “different approaches to gathering and analyzing data and then taking constructive action regarding methane emissions,” spokesperson Wally Drangmeister said in an email. The NMOGA represents more than 300 oil and gas companies operating in New Mexico.
“We have been focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions for several years, including goals to reduce the release and flaring of natural gas and to share best practices,” Drangmeister said. He says the group is interested in data on “naturally occurring sources of methane emissions in the San Juan Basin,” including emissions coming from outcroppings of coal seams.
In March, the group sent a letter to the EPA in opposition to proposed changes to ozone rules because of the “lasting economic harm” it would cause New Mexico. “EPA has failed to demonstrate the health benefits of lowering the ozone standard,” it said in a letter signed by Steve Henke. On the contrary, the NMOGA argues that proposed changes to the rules would “result in lost jobs and increased poverty which would potentially have a greater detrimental impact to health.”
There will be a public forum about the San Juan Basin methane plume on April 17, 2015 at 9 a.m. at San Juan College in Farmington.