What this 2,500-square-mile methane cloud tells us about gas leaks

Ramón Alvarez

Look up in New Mexico and on most days you’ll see the unmistakably vast blue skies that make the Southwest region so unique.

But there’s also something hovering over the Four Corners region that a naked eye can’t detect: A 2,500-square mile cloud of methane, the highest concentration of the heat-trapping pollution anywhere in the United States. The Delaware-sized hot spot was first reported in a study by NASA scientists two years ago.

At the time, researchers were confident the cloud was associated with fossil fuels, but unsure of the precise sources. Was it coming from the region’s sprawling, naturally occurring coal beds or from a leaky oil and gas industry?

Now a NASA-led team has published a paper in a top scientific journal that provides some answers. Many of the highest-emitting sources are associated with the region’s oil and gas production and distribution. 

And that’s actually good news – because we know the leaks in these wells can be located and plugged with relative ease, and without adding significant costs to the industry. This, in turn, means we can make a big dent in the methane cloud.

$100 million in wasted natural gas a year

The researcher found more than 250 high-emitting sites, including many oil and gas facilities, and that only about 10 percent were responsible for more than half of the studied emissions. This is consistent with results from our methane study in Texas’ Barnett Shale – which also found disproportionate releases from such “super emitters.” 

Of course, that leaking methane isn’t just pollution; it’s also the waste of a finite natural resource and of revenue for state and tribal governments.

report by ICF International found that venting, flaring and leaks from oil and gas sites on federal and tribal land in New Mexico, alone, effectively threw away $100 million worth of gas in 2013 – the worst record in the nation. That, in turn, represents lost royalties to taxpayers of nearly $43 million since 2009.

Nearly a third of all methane wasted on public and tribal lands occurs in New Mexico.

New Mexico’s San Juan Basin is responsible for only 4 percent of total natural gas production in the country, ICF found, but responsible for 17 percent of the nation’s overall natural gas waste on federal and tribal lands.

Other Western states tell a different story

Capturing methane and preventing waste at oil and gas operations on federal lands is an opportunity to save a precious resource for the oil and gas industry – while at the same time tackling a major source of climate pollution.  

Over the past year, the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees federal and tribal lands including those in the San Juan Basin, has moved to limit methane emissions. The agency based its action in large part on experiences from New Mexico’s neighboring states, which have started to use modern practices and technologies to dramatically reduce this waste.

In 2013, San Juan Basin operators reported almost 220,000 metric tons of methane emissions. By comparison, Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin has almost twice the natural gas production of the San Juan Basin, but only half the emissions.

Why the difference? Wyoming, like Colorado, has worked to put strong new rules in place to reduce emissions. And they are working.

Strong rules from BLM can do the same, but they must be completed and implemented quickly to better protect the Land of Enchantment, and federal and tribal lands across the U.S.