NASA: methane hotspot can be seen from space

It has been confirmed that a methane cloud above the south west of the United States can in fact be detected by satellite instruments that orbit the earth, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan and NASA.

The methane cloud currently hovers above the quadruple interstate area of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, directly above America’s most productive geological methane basin, the San Juan Basin, where oil and methane gas is being extracted for energy consumption both domestic and foreign.

It has been concluded by both NASA and the University of Michigan that the methane released has been a result of methane extraction processes. The high emissions were recorded in 2003, prior to the advent of hydraulic fracturing in 2006. Parts of the oil and gas system were leaking even before fracking, said Eric Kort, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study.

This map shows anomalous U.S. methane emissions (that is, how much the emissions are higher or lower than average) for 2003-2009, as measured by SCIAMACHY. Purple and dark blue areas are below average. Pale blue and green areas are close to normal or slightly elevated. Yellows and red indicate higher than-normal anomalies, with more intense colors showing higher concentrations. The Four Corners area is the only red spot on the map. (Credit: NASA / JPL calltech / Univesity of Michigan)
This map shows anomalous U.S. methane emissions (that is, how much the emissions are higher or lower than average) for 2003-2009, as measured by SCIAMACHY. Purple and dark blue areas are below average. Pale blue and green areas are close to normal or slightly elevated. Yellows and red indicate higher than-normal anomalies, with more intense colors showing higher concentrations. The Four Corners area is the only red spot on the map.
(Image source: NASA / JPL calltech / Univesity of Michigan)

The permanent methane plume covers 2,500 square miles and is the accumulation of leaked methane, both accidental and deliberate. The methane released from the ground into the atmosphere is estimated at half a teragram (500 million kilograms) annually, about as much methane released by the United Kingdom across the oil, coal and gas industries combined.

The methane hotspot is the largest ever seen above the United States and is measured as more than  three times the ground level average.

References:

Kort, E.A., et al. 2014. Four corners: The largest US methane anomaly viewed from space. Geophysical Research Letters. [Online]. VOLUME 41 (9). [2 Jan 2015]. Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2014GL061503/abstract

Dr Phillips, T (NASA). 2014. US. Methane ‘HotSpot’ Bigger than Expected – NASA Science. [online]. [1 Jan 2015]. Available from: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2014/09oct_methanehotspot/

Aerial study reveals methane and benzene emissions higher than expected

A new study of the oil and gas fields of Colorado, conducted by scientists from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), has revealed that methane and benzene emissions are respectively as much as three and seven times higher than Colorado state inventory.

Published on the 7th of May 2014, the aerial study recorded methane and non-methane hydrocarbon emissions over the densely pack oil and gas fields of the Denver-Julesburg Basin, over a two day period covering the 29th and 31st May 2013.

Comparing Colorado state inventory data with observational data, the report found that methane concentrations in the air were three times higher than state inventory, with oil and gas operations in the basin emitting around 19.3 metric tonnes of methane emissions every hour, which the authors calculate as a leak rate of 4.1 percent (± 1.5) of total gas produced.

Colorado State. Source: usgs.gov
Colorado State. (image source: usgs.gov)

Benzene, a volatile organic compound (VOC) harmful to humans, was seven times higher than state inventory, emitting around 173 ± 64 kg/hr.

The study reinforces concerns that fugitive emissions of methane and other non-methane hydrocarbons are running unabated, with gas operators and policy makers unable to halt fugitive emissions of gases harmful to human health.

“These discrepancies are substantial,” said lead author Gabrielle Petron, an atmospheric scientist with NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Emission estimates or ‘inventories’ are the primary tool that policy makers and regulators use to evaluate air quality and climate impacts of various sources, including oil and gas sources. If they’re off, it’s important to know.”

To read a copy of the peer-reviewed paper, click here.

Methane leakage – the disturbing reality

A study carried out by a U.S. government agency and prestigious research institute has shown a highly disturbing level of methane leakage in gas production.

The measurements, carried out by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and  the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences show that on one February day in the Uintah Basin, the natural gas field leaked 6 to 12 percent of the methane produced, on average on February days.

These findings have worrying implications on many levels. The possible effects of such high concentrations of methane in the air are disturbing for both human and animal health.  Furthermore, given that methane is a greenhouse gas around twenty times more potent than CO2, this discovery gives the lie to any suggestion that shale gas could be a ‘green’ or ‘transition’ fuel.

Read the full report here.

Picture shows a natural gas compressor station at the Dry Canyon junction in Nine Mile Canyon, Utah, United States. By Trica Simpson, published under Creative Commons Licence.