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In Four Corners, Satellite Sees Hot Spot Of Leaking Methane

NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan
The Four Corners area (red) is the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this map showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher).

Down in the Four Corners area, near the towns of Durango, Colorado, and Farmington, New Mexico, a NASA satellite has spotted an unexpected hot spot of methane leaks.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and a precursor to ozone, an air pollutant. In a paper published online in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, lead researcher Eric Kort, of the University of Michigan, and other scientists report that the region may be responsible for 10 percent of the total U.S. methane emissions from the natural gas sector.

The Four Corners area is the site of the San Juan Basin, North America's most productive coalbed methane basin. Coalbed methane is a kind of natural gas that is found along with coal.

According to the study, from 2003 to 2009, the region emitted 0.59 million metric tons of methane every year. That is a higher number than other emissions estimates made by the European Union and U.S. EPA.

Since so much methane is produced from the region, even a low leak rate could result in a large quantity of emissions, Kort said in a press release.

Mike Eisenfeld, who works for the environmental group San Juan Citizens Alliance, told the Durango Herald he was not surprised the leak rate was higher than prior estimates.

"They’ve been underestimating the amount for years," Eisenfeld said.

NASA Scientist Christian Frankenberg had first seen the large methane signal in data from a European Space Agency satellite four years ago, but thought it might be an instrument error. Later, scientists double-checked the emissions the satellite was seeing with on-the-ground stations in the area, which independently validated the high emissions rates.

The state of Colorado recently passed regulations to limit methane emissions from oil and gas production, and the Obama administration has also focused on minimizing the amount of methane leaking from the natural gas system.

Kort, the lead author, said the findings warrant a closer look at gas production in the San Juan Basin. According to a press release, he plans to use airplane measurements next year to try to identify the source of the leaks.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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