Forum will take closer look at methane 'hot spot' over Four Corners

James Fenton
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Scientists are taking a closer look at the high levels of atmospheric methane in the Four Corners, and they'll share some of their latest research at a forum later this week.

Hosted by the Four Corners Air Quality Group, the forum at San Juan College on Friday will discuss existing and ongoing studies that try to pinpoint the sources of the high concentration of methane that hovers over the region.

This month, scientists from NASA, the University of Colorado, the University of Michigan and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies are conducting a monthlong study to find the sources behind the greenhouse gas.

In October, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Michigan published a report that showed a high concentration of methane across 2,500 square miles in the Four Corners.

Results from the joint study were based on samples taken between 2003 and 2009 from space, combined with ground-based testing by Los Alamos researchers.

The group of scientists at Friday's forum aim to build on those results by using ongoing air and ground-based studies to more closely examine the roughly 1.32 trillion cubic feet of methane gas produced or leaked into the atmosphere each year in the region.

At the forum, Christian Frankenberg will discuss NASA's contribution to getting a sharper focus on area methane levels. Frankenberg works in the Tropospheric Sounding, Assimilation and Modeling program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA will use two planes flown from Durango, Colo. — Farmington's airport lacked sufficient hangar space, he said — to take infrared images of methane over the course of 10 days, beginning on Friday, if the weather cooperates.

"What we will be doing is taking images to better pinpoint any methane hot spots on the ground that we can better detect with spectrometer data collected from the two planes," Frankenberg said from his office in Pasadena, Calif. "The ultimate goal is providing a zoomed-in version of the satellite image (from the October study). The planes will not always fly the same path. We will divide and conquer an area of roughly 60 by 60 kilometers. The area's pretty big."

Wally Drangmeister, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said he is eager to hear what the state oil and gas industry can learn at the forum.

"We are in the business of capturing and marketing natural gas, and if there are some places where we can be more efficient in that — with different equipment or maintenance protocols to reduce any loss of methane to the extent possible — that's ideal," he said. "Finding something positive coming out of this that we could use, we'd be absolutely interested."


What: Four Corners Public Science Forum on Methane

When: 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Room 7103 of the Computer Sciences Building at San Juan College, 4601 College Blvd., Farmington

Cost: Free

More info: Call Mark Jones of the New Mexico Environment Department at 505-566-9746.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.