From the air, the rocky, sprawling San Juan Basin comes into focus like a scene in a classic Western.
As a team of researchers board an aircraft on an April day to examine what’s below, a mysterious concentration of methane continues to spew around dramatic alpine peaks, desert canyons and ancient cliff dwellings.
It is this methane seepage that has researchers both excited and worried ever since it was detected after a NASA report last year. The so-called “hot spot” in the Four Corners is responsible for producing the largest concentration of the greenhouse gas in the nation, in which methane can be seen leaking in real-time through thermal observations.
With the Fruitland Formation of the San Juan Basin being the second largest gas-producing basin in the United States – covering portions of northern New Mexico and Southwest Colorado – the region provides a unique opportunity for researchers.
“We’ve changed the composition of the atmosphere mainly by putting in carbon dioxide and methane, and that has changed the heat,” said Russ Schnell, deputy director of the Boulder-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Global Monitoring Division. “By changing the physics of the atmosphere, we’ve changed the thickness of the warm blanket that surrounds the Earth, and we’ve added a huge number more of down feathers to this blanket.”
Schnell coordinated a team of at least 75 researchers who descended on the Four Corners for a month to determine what is causing the mysterious concentration of methane. The work has significant national and global implications, because findings could guide policymakers and the oil and gas industry in how they go about regulating and reacting to the venting of concerning gases, specifically methane.
“As a scientist, obviously, we want to provide (to people) the objective information we see and we learn. It’s important for us to convey that to the public; that is a part of the goal and mission of scientists,” said Eric Kort, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Michigan who has been working on the investigation since its inception. Kort’s background is in measuring greenhouse gases. “Our goal is to understand what’s going on and present objective information.”
President Barack Obama has called for a reduction in emissions nationwide, and Colorado became the first state to limit methane in February 2014, when the state’s Air Quality Control Commission adopted rules that required energy companies to find and fix methane leaks. Those regulations are being phased in, starting last year and continuing through May 2016.
The hot spot reported by NASA covers about 2,500 square miles. Researchers used European satellite data to reveal the concentration, which showed a persistent atmospheric hot spot in the area between 2003 and 2009.
Researchers this spring embarked on a unique collaborative study to reveal the cause of the concentration, including teams from the University of Colorado, NOAA, NASA and the University of Michigan. This brain trust brought the most advanced instruments to investigate possible sources, including venting from oil and gas activities as a result of coal-bed methane extraction, leakage from active coal mines and natural seeps.
Scientists used airborne and ground-based instruments and coordinated measurements. A Twin Otter utility aircraft was used to quantify methane emissions, two mobile labs outfitted with sophisticated chemical-detection instruments targeted specific areas identified by the aircraft, and a single-engine Mooney TLS airplane surveyed the region to locate large methane signals and focus on particular plumes.
Meanwhile, a P3 aircraft swept the area to capture information on chemicals associated with air quality and climate. Winds over the region were monitored by an array of equipment, and NASA flew two remote-sensing instruments, using infrared imaging, to map methane in detail over the entire region and a thermal-emission spectrometer to make highly sensitive measurements.
“The first question we asked was: ‘Can we use any of our tools that we have at NASA to take a closer look at this area and see if we can better understand what the reason is why we see this methane anomaly from space,’” said Andrew Aubrey, flight coordinator for the effort, who came from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
“This data set will provide some very strong indication of where we have fugitive emissions and will also show the natural and anthropogenic sources in the region,” Aubrey said. “What people do with this data set, it’s up to them.”
Researchers have no doubt that they will be able to pinpoint the source and locations of the seepage, suggesting that it would be “embarrassing” if they didn’t.
“You can tell where the methane is coming from and the carbon dioxide and all the other gases. ... It’s literally fingerprints,” said Schnell, pointing to samples that include 50 different species from the surrounding environment.
Oil and gas advocates in the area already are urging caution in the investigation, suggesting that there is a host of factors at play, including natural occurrence. They are asking to be allowed to comment on any results.
“This is just the beginning of a very technical dialogue,” said Christi Zeller, executive director of the La Plata County Energy Council. “They don’t have any idea about our equipment. ... If they want to regulate industry as a result of this documentation, they need to be sure to understand what our operations are, as opposed to what’s happening naturally.”
Zeller added, however, that the research could help the industry from an economic standpoint by pinpointing leaks, but she again urged caution.
“Without any sort of prior peer reviewing and publishing, we don’t want it to be inaccurate,” Zeller said. “Then the whole product goes away.”