Four Corners methane 'hot spot' can be reduced with greater capture technology, environmental group says

James Fenton
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — An Oct. 9 joint study that labeled the Four Corners as an atmospheric methane "hot spot" is a big problem that greater regulation and capture technology can begin to repair, a senior policy adviser at a Taos-based nonprofit organization says.

Conducted by scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Michigan, and published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters, the report detailed a high concentration of the greenhouse gas methane across 2,500 square miles in the Four Corners. Called "the largest U.S. methane anomaly," the paper attributed the high concentration of methane primarily to the natural gas and petroleum industries.

The measurements in the report show a large, orange-red star clustered over the Four Corners area in an otherwise relatively benign blue-green sky across a map of the United States. The results are based on samples taken from space, combined with ground-based testing Los Alamos researchers conducted at the Public Service Company of New Mexico's San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow between 2003 and 2009. The study predates the introduction of hydraulic fracturing technology.

The "hot spot" designation comes from the approximately 1.32 trillion cubic feet of methane gas produced or leaked into the atmosphere each year in the region. Second only to carbon dioxide as the most prevalent component in greenhouse gases, methane gas, the study says, comes primarily from gas, coal and coal-bed methane mining and processing.

Thomas Singer, a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, said the report, which uses data collected before hydraulic fracturing became a common practice, indicates the likely sources of the emissions comes not just from production, but leaking industry infrastructure and lesser-known processes like gas-well flaring and liquids unloading.

"One assertion we made in 'Leaking Profits' is that oil and gas companies are on a capital budget, and they'll allocate money when it comes to production," Singer said of a 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council report he coauthored. "They'd probably rather drill the next well than invest in capturing it."

"Leaking Profits" assembled 10 solutions to methane leaking or "fugitive" emissions, including "green completions," pneumatic controllers, desiccant dehydrators and plunger lift systems, among others. While the cost for some of those containment systems can be costly — leak monitoring and repair systems can range from $26,000 to $59,000, and dry seal systems can cost between $90,000 and $324,000 per device — they also can generate significant profits if implemented, according to "Leaking Profits."

"When you have got as much methane out there as we do, it's easier to control it than to fully characterize it," Singer said. "It's a matter of capturing the gas before it is leaked because, without thinking it through, it's going to end up getting flared. We're talking about every million cubic feet, it gets wasteful and just magnifies the problem."

Asked for reaction to the report by the New Mexico Environment Department's Air Quality Bureau, spokesman Jim Winchester said the bureau did not yet have a response.

"We continue to review the report," Winchester said in an email on Friday.

Part of the problem the "hot spot" study shows, Singer said, is that collecting conclusive data that pinpoints all the causes of the leaks is difficult. The result slows the federal regulatory process while the greenhouse gas pollution continues to multiply, he said.

"A colleague of mine calls the San Juan Basin one big industrial facility without a roof," Singer said. "There are about 24,000 wells in the basin. A lot of these wells are old. There's pressure decline that causes venting. It's alphabet soup — it's difficult to pull it apart. If you can't measure this stuff, then at least just clean it up."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.