Four Corners a methane hot spot, NASA study says

James Fenton
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The Four Corners is a national "hot spot" for concentrations of atmospheric methane, according to a new study.

The joint study by scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Michigan published in the journal "Geophysical Research Letters" last week reported a high concentration of the greenhouse gas methane across 2,500 square miles in the Four Corners, including San Juan County, which was the largest concentration of methane in the United States.

The study — which uses data collected before hydraulic fracturing became a common practice — indicates the likely sources of the emissions are coal-bed methane production and leaking industry infrastructure.

Industry leader Tom Dugan of Dugan Production Corporation said the report was hardly a call for concern.

"Gas has seeped around here for thousands of years," Dugan said. "I wouldn't worry about it. Methane is part of life. I like it. I've made a living off of it for 60 years."

Christian Frankenberg, a research scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said he first noticed the Four Corners "signal" years ago. Frankenberg said he used data from a European Space Agency satellite instrument that measures greenhouse gases.

Data gathered by the spectrometer from 2003 to 2009 caught the attention of NASA scientists who thought the immense concentration was an error.

"The hot spot was so huge the scientists thought it was a mistake in their instruments," Frankenberg said. "We didn't focus on it because we weren't sure if it was a true signal or an instrument error."

The measurements show a major bloom of methane gas in the region — approximately 1.32 trillion cubic feet of methane produced or leaked into the atmosphere each year. Methane is second only to carbon dioxide as the most prevalent component in greenhouse gases. Methane is a primary component of natural gas and significant emissions come from the natural gas and petroleum industries.

Manvendra Dubey, a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said the study findings were supported by ground-based testing Los Alamos researchers conducted at the PNM San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow.

"The findings are three times what current (Environmental Protection Agency) inventories predicted and are attributed to under-counting emissions from coal-bed methane production," Dubey said. "Methane is clean but if you lose it to the atmosphere it is 25 times more powerful (as a greenhouse gas) than carbon dioxide although it has a shorter life. CO2 is potent for 100 years. Methane for 25, roughly."

Dugan said he doesn't believe there is a problem.

"I think climate change is blown out of proportion, Dugan said. "Methane's a great thing to have. It sure beats building a fire."

Asked about the report, state Environment Department spokesman Jim Winchester, said the findings are too new.

"We have seen the media articles discussing the report, but have not fully evaluated the report or the findings yet," Winchester said in an email. "It would be premature to comment."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and

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