Coal, Not Fracking, Blamed For Larger-Than-Expected US Methane Hot Spot

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
A “hot spot” over the southwestern US that is responsible for producing the largest concentration of methane above the country is far larger than previously estimated, officials from NASA and the University of Michigan have revealed, and emissions from fossil fuels such as coal are being blamed.
According to the US space agency, a new analysis of satellite data has revealed that this “hot spot” located near the intersection of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah is more than three times larger than standard ground-based estimates had predicted, covering 2,500 square miles or roughly half the size of Connecticut.
Lead author Eric Kort from the University of Michigan and his colleagues reported that the region released approximately 0.59 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere each year from 2003 through 2009. That’s 3.5 times more than the European Union’s Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research had predicted.
In addition, The Guardian reports that the atmospheric methane concentrations found there were roughly 80 percent more than estimated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The UK newspaper noted that previous ground-based studies had calculated those EPA figures were off by at least 50 percent.
“It’s the largest signal we can see from the satellite. It’s hard to hide from space,” Kort, an atmospheric scientist at the Ann Arbor-based university, told the Associated Press. He noted that the results were so surprising he and his associates waited several years and used ground monitors to verify their observations before releasing their findings.
Their new study, which was published online Thursday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, used observations conducted by the ESA’s Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography (SCIAMACHY) instrument at the atmospheric hot spot throughout the research period. Independent validation of those measurements was provided by a ground station in the Total Carbon Column Observing Network, the study authors noted.
In order to calculate the emissions rate that would be required to produce the observed concentration of methane in the air, Kort and his fellow researchers performed high-resolution regional simulations utilizing a chemical transport model that simulated how weather moves and changes airborne chemical compounds.
In a statement, Kort explained that the methane emissions could not be attributed to hydraulic fracturing or fracking near the hot spot, since the study period predates the widespread use of the practice. This would indicate that the methane emissions are more likely the result of leaks in natural gas production and processing equipment in the San Juan Basin, which the researchers explained is the most active coalbed methane production area in the nation.
“The results are indicative that emissions from established fossil fuel harvesting techniques are greater than inventoried. There’s been so much attention on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but we need to consider the industry as a whole,” Kort said. He explained that natural gas is at least 95 percent methane, and that since the gas is odorless and colorless, leaks can be difficult to detect and plug without the right scientific equipment.
As Alex Nussbaum of Bloomberg News noted, several domestic environmental groups have pushed the Obama administration to begin regulating methane leaks, due in part to the increase in fracking. In March, the President announced a plan to reduce methane emissions by improving the measurement and monitoring of methane emissions and assessing current methane emissions data, NASA officials added.
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