After hearing about NASA’s new study on methane emitters in the San Juan Basin, Pete Dronkers, a southwest representative with Earthworks, immediately got into his car and drove from Ridgway to Aztec with his infrared camera.
Dronkers, along with New Mexico-based representatives from the Sierra Club, pinpointed locations identified on the NASA report, and took a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) camera to the sites to expose the invisible leaks.
“Just this site right here has four gas leaks,” Dronkers said Tuesday on a media tour of several natural gas production sites on public land. “But finding leaks like this is fairly common in this gas field.”
At several locations around Aztec and Bloomfield, methane and other gases seeped from old gas lines, storage tanks and processing facilities. Dronkers, who has previously surveyed the area, was not surprised.
“It is not our job to find these,” Dronkers said. “It should be the industry’s.”
Earthworks is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development while promoting sustainable solutions.
On Monday, NASA released a report that identified 250 sites related to energy extraction that release methane in the San Juan Basin around southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico.
The two-year study, prompted by the discovery in 2013 of the Four Corners methane hot spot, determined that 10 percent of emitters accounted for more than 50 percent of the total methane released into the atmosphere, which is estimated at 600,000 metric tons annually.
Methane seeps such as the ones found Tuesday are not illegal, and in some instances, such as venting, are standard industry practices.
However, according to the Sierra Club’s Alex Renirie, newly drafted regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management addressing methane releases could help reduce emissions.
“This is the first-ever industrial limits on fugitive methane emissions,” she said.
Methane is not considered a direct risk to human health, but it is regarded as one of the most potent greenhouse gases – 87 times the potency of carbon dioxide – which experts believe contributes to the overall issue of global climate change.
Industry representatives have held that natural outcrops are largely responsible for methane emissions in the Four Corners, and they dismiss claims energy extraction practices are primarily to blame for the hot spot the size of the state of Delaware.
Researchers for NASA said the study took into account outcrops, and determined their contribution to methane emissions in the region to be minor.
Regardless, oil and gas companies have expressed interest in capturing fugitive methane. Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for Western Energy Alliance, said Monday natural gas producers cut emissions by 15 percent since 1990 even as production increased more than 50 percent.
Yet at least one thing Tuesday was clear for environmentalists: NASA’s study was an immediate call to action to oil and gas companies to reduce emissions.
“Even such a small source (of methane leaks) is extremely significant from a cumulative perspective,” Dronkers said. “Even if I see one that’s easily fixable, it bothers me.”