Column: Securing Bloomfield's Future
Gregory Bassham in his 2004 book "Critical Thinking" describes a loaded question as a question that contains a controversial or unjustified assumption (e.g., a presumption of guilt.) This is precisely the sort of question that is being asked regarding the so-called "Four Corners Methane Hot Spot." The term "hot spot" conjures up images of nuclear reactors or forest fires. While it may be good marketing to secure grant funding or obtain public attention, it is hardly a good description and certainly is not a scientific term.
The public comments by researchers have consistently indicated that the preconceived notion is that the oil and gas industry is overwhelmingly to blame. The abstract of the research letter, "Four corners: The largest U.S. methane anomaly viewed from space," states: "The persistence of this CH4 (methane) signal from 2003 onward indicates that the source is likely from established gas, coal, and coalbed methane mining and processing."
This abstract conveys a very loaded question, not a scientific one.
Proper questions and real science will require a far wider and more open-minded view of the issue. Those of us who are familiar with the area know there are underground coal mines, surface coal mines, oil and natural gas production, natural gas and natural gas liquid processing, extensive naturally occurring coal bearing outcroppings, two regional landfills, extensive feedlot operations, and other agricultural operations. In short, a wide range of potential and in all likelihood real sources of methane releases into the atmosphere.
With such a large number of sources for potential methane release, it is all the more important that a comprehensive and unbiased approach be used to find and quantify methane sources. For this reason, the oil and gas industry has consistently called for a high degree of transparency and cooperation in the process used to identify potential sources of methane emissions. If all researchers look for is oil and gas sources of methane, it is clear that that is all they are likely to find.
NOAA/NASA researchers conducted a multi-level survey of the Four Corners area in April of this year. The goal is to verify sources of methane emissions in the area, or so they say. Prior to the survey, the oil and gas industry reached out to the researchers offering to provide safe access to any sites found to be a possible concern and to provide any information on the activities and operations occurring during their survey.
In the April 2015 pre-survey public outreach, the researchers agreed to a high level of transparency and communication with the oil and gas industry, and others in their ongoing research. Unfortunately, such transparency and communication has not been forthcoming.
During the survey the researchers made no effort to contact industry when taking field measurements at sites of concern. When industry has asked for information to aid in their evaluation of the findings prior to publication, researchers have been non-responsive. One has to ask whether their lack of cooperation indicates a bias and that the source of their funding was based on a LOADED QUESTION.