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Groundbreaking Four Corners methane study among lab’s scientific breakthroughs in 2014

From outer space, the Four Corners area of New Mexico stands out.

While blue, purple and occasional yellow pixels fill the rest of the continental United States in a satellite image released by NASA in October, the lone searing red dot camps over New Mexico, not far from its intersection with Colorado, Utah and Arizona.

The red dot indicates a methane hot spot spanning 2,500 square miles, unrivaled by even the heartland and southern oil patches where unprecedented oil extraction is taking place, thanks to increased reliance on evolving hydraulic fracturing technology.

The NASA satellites can’t identify what’s causing the methane gush over northwestern New Mexico. But scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory believe they’ve found the source, and they don’t blame fracking, even though New Mexico’s San Juan Basin is among the most productive oil-extraction sites in the country.

“We confirmed that it’s most likely coal-bed methane,” said Manvendra Dubey, a leading researcher at the lab on the project that pegged the source of the enormous fugitive methane cloud.

The methane study was among 12 projects lab officials identified as the top scientific breakthroughs at LANL in 2014. Others included tracking Internet traffic to articles about diseases as an indicator of their spread, creation of simulated human organs that could replace animals in medical tests and a laser chosen for NASA’s 2020 Mars mission, to name a few.

The lab’s scientific work has been overshadowed this year by the Feb. 14 rupture of a drum of nuclear waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. The drum that ruptured originated at LANL, and the volatile components it contained were not identified in the lab’s formal description of the waste. A multitude of federal investigations are reviewing the incident.

“The breadth of scientific expertise and range of disciplines necessary for supporting Los Alamos’ national security mission can be seen when reflecting on some of the year’s more visible accomplishments,” said Alan Bishop, principal associate director for science, technology and engineering at LANL. “Los Alamos remains proud of its legacy of using world-class science to address some of the world’s most pressing and difficult problems.”

The methane study’s findings have come under fire from oil and gas industry interests that say researchers have downplayed a historical record of naturally occurring methane escapes in the San Juan Basin, and environmental groups that contended it downplayed fracking’s contribution to the hot spot.

But Dubey defended the science that points to coal-bed methane as the likely source of the hot spot. Los Alamos scientists embarked on the project without an objective in mind, Dubey said. In fact, they originally set out to measure something entirely different than the methane emissions that ultimately stepped to the fore of the study.

Related: Satellite sees hot spot of methane in US Southwest

The project began with the goal of gauging whether coal-fired power plants in northwestern New Mexico were accurately measuring their emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides. It turns out that the plants’ emissions readings were accurate, Dubey said. But on their way to reaching that conclusion, Los Alamos’ researchers reviewing ground-level pollutant readings discovered a curious methane presence. It was unexpected because methane is not a byproduct of the coal-powered plants.

“We saw these methane signals,” Dubey said. “They were subtle. … It started off as a serendipitous discovery.”

The methane measurements literally changed with the wind, posting daily highs in the morning with levels tailing off by afternoon. Dubey and his team used supercomputers at LANL to develop models that explained the shifting methane levels, and plied what they found against the data gathered by NASA satellites.

The satellite data vindicated fracking as the source of the Four Corners hot spot, because images dating back to 2009 — before the current surge in hydraulic fracturing in the area had begun — showed the concentration of methane already existed.

Together, the satellite imagery and the research at Los Alamos show that fugitive methane levels in the Four Corners region are three times greater than what the Environmental Protection Agency believed them to be. The EPA acknowledges methane as one of the greenhouse gases whose prevalence in the atmosphere is responsible for rising temperatures on Earth.

With timing eliminating fracking as the primary cause of the hot spot, researchers focused their attention on historical activities and geological factors in the Four Corners. Its coal-rich makeup and the decades of flourishing coal mines that preceded researchers’ methane measurements pointed to a nexus, Dubey said, conceding that even his team expected that its research would find fracking responsible for the methane leak.

“This is not the last word,” Dubey said, “but it is a surprise.”

He acknowledges that more work is needed to identify exactly why so much methane is escaping into the atmosphere above the Four Corners. While coal mining in the area was a “dominant activity,” as Dubey puts it, he said more research is needed to determine the contributions to the cloud from naturally occurring methane seepage from coal seams and agricultural methane. He sees value in continuing that work, which to date has not been authorized or funded.

“We need to really understand fugitive leaks both from past activities and in future activities,” he said.

Developing credible baseline measurements for fugitive methane is a crucial step toward quantifying the environmental effects of fracking as time goes on, Dubey said. If such a baseline or a strategy to harness the natural gas escaping into the atmosphere evolve from it, then Dubey said history will view the Four Corners project as a success.

“Before this,” he said, “we were running blind.”

 

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or pmalone@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.

 

 

This article was written by Patrick Malone from The Santa Fe New Mexican and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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