WASHINGTON – A surprising hot spot of the potent global-warming gas methane hovers over part of the Four Corners, according to satellite data.
That result hints that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies considerably underestimate leaks of methane, which is also called natural gas.
The higher level of methane is not a local safety or a health issue for residents, but factors in overall global warming. It is likely leakage from pumping methane out of coal mines. While methane isn’t the most plentiful heat-trapping gas, scientists worry about its increasing amounts and have had difficulties tracking emissions.
A satellite image of atmospheric methane concentrations over the continental U.S. shows the hot spot as a bright red blip over parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah. The image used data from 2003 to 2009.
Within that hot spot, a European satellite found atmospheric methane concentrations equivalent to emissions of about 1.3 million pounds a year. That’s about 80 percent more than the EPA figured. Other ground-based studies have calculated that EPA estimates were off by 50 percent.
The methane concentration in the hot spot was more than triple the amount previously estimated by European scientists.
“It makes sense,” said Mike Eisenfeld, San Juan Citizens Alliance staff member in New Mexico. “They’ve been underestimating the amount for years.”
There are methane leaks in all phases of production – drilling, processing and marketing, Eisenfeld said.
“If they continue drilling, there will continue to be methane emissions.” Eisenfeld said. “The Four Corners is taking the brunt of this. The industry will say, ‘Oh, that was five years ago’ or ‘Oh, it’s the coal,’” Eisenfeld said. “Well, that’s a lot of ...
“The future requires speculation. But I’d think that methane contamination will remain high.”
The new study, done by NASA and the University of Michigan, was released Thursday by the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
The amount of methane in the Four Corners – an area covering about 2,500 square miles – would trap more heat than all the carbon dioxide produced yearly in Sweden. That’s because methane is 86 times more potent for trapping heat in the short-term than carbon dioxide.
Herald Staff Writer Dale Rodebaugh contributed to this report.