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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

NASA: Fracking is source of the massive methane "hot spot" in the American Southwest

by Gaius Publius

This map shows anomalous U.S. methane emissions (or how much the emissions differ from average background concentrations) for 2003 to 2009, as measured by the European Space Agency's SCIAMACHY instrument. The Four Corners area [circled]—the area where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet—is the only red spot on the map. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan; click to enlarge)

Methane, fracking, and global warming — like three musketeers, all for one and one for all.

As anyone who reads here regularly knows, methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas — it traps the earth's heat — just like CO2. When it's burned (for power-generation, for example) it's emitted into the atmosphere as CO2 and H2O (water vapor, another greenhouse gas, by the way). While methane is shorter-lived than CO2, which is stable in the atmosphere and is only drawn out slowly by natural processes, when methane breaks down in the air, it becomes CO2 and other products, including water vapor, which again are also greenhouse gases. So methane, even after breaking down, does long-term damage.

The lifespan of methane in the lower atmosphere is estimated at about ten years and 12 years in the stratosphere, but its greenhouse effect in that brief time is over 100 times the effect of CO2 over the same period.

So, not only is burning methane bad for the global climate (Ms. Clinton, take note), but direct methane leaks are terrible. If the "greenhouse effect" of CO2 (its "global warming potential") is indexed as "1", the greenhouse effect of methane over 100-year timespan is about 30, and and over a 20-year timespan, about 85.

That's thirty times as potent as CO2, and 85 times as potent as CO2, respectively.
Methane in the Earth's atmosphere is a strong greenhouse gas with a global warming potential of 29 over a 100-year period. This means that a methane emission will have 29 times the impact on temperature of a carbon dioxide emission of the same mass over the following 100 years. Methane has a large effect (100 times as strong as carbon dioxide) for a brief period (having a half-life of 7 years in the atmosphere), whereas carbon dioxide has a small effect for a long period (over 100 years). Because of this difference in effect and time period, the global warming potential of methane over a 20-year time period is 86.
There are many sources of direct methane emissions, including animal husbandry (consider how much beef is consumed in just the U.S. each day; every live cow emits methane almost hourly) and also melting Arctic permafrost, both undersea and on land (there's a massive amount of methane sequestered in the Arctic, most of it still there ... for now).

But a new and important source of methane is our increasing dependence on "natural gas" as a fuel for power generation. It's true that burning methane provides more energy per unit of CO2 emission, but the CO2 it emits is still CO2. In addition, methane leaks at every point in the production and usage process, from well heads to pipelines, to facilities that "liquefy" it for long-distance transport, to the transportation vehicles themselves, to delivery to customers, and finally at sites where it's ultimately burned. Every step of the process produces methane leakage. (Consider that the next time someone tries to sell a methane-dependent "bridge fuel" plan to the future.)

But the most important source of methane leakage is from the fracking that's used to extract it.

Put simply, fracking doesn't just cause earthquakes and water pollution. Fracking causes large methane leaks as well.

NASA: Fracking is causing the largest methane leak in the country

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the "four corners" region of the American Southwest, where Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico meet (see map above). We've known for years that there's a massive (visible from space) methane "hot spot" in that region. Now we know why. Fracking.

Via Common Dreams:
NASA Study Nails Fracking as Source of Massive Methane 'Hot Spot'

The 2,500-square mile plume is said to be the largest concentration of the potent greenhouse gas in the country

A NASA study released on Monday confirms that a methane "hot spot" in the Four Corners region of the American southwest is directly related to leaks from natural gas extraction, processing, and distribution.

The 2,500-square mile plume, first detected in 2003 and confirmed by NASA satellite data in October 2014, is said to be the largest concentration of atmospheric methane in the U.S. and is more than triple a standard ground-based estimate. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a highly-efficient greenhouse gas—84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and a significant contributor to global warming.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and funded primarily by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), surveyed industry sources including gas processing facilities, storage tanks, pipeline leaks, and well pads, as well as a coal mine venting shaft.

It found that leaks from only 10 percent of the individual methane sources are contributing to half of the emissions, confirming the scientists' suspicions that the mysterious hotspot was connected to the high level of fracking in the region.

There are more than 20,000 oil and gas wells operating in the San Juan Basin, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that overall annual gas production in the basin is as much as 1.3 trillion cubic feet, mostly from coal bed methane and shale formations.

"NASA's finding that the oil and gas industry is primarily responsible for the 'hot spot' is not surprising," stated the Western Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm. "In fact, the researchers found only one large source of methane not related to oil and gas operations: venting from the San Juan coal mine. This discovery renders attempts to point the finger at other potential emissions sources, like coal outcrops and landfills, definitively refuted."
The article goes on to detail "how problematic current estimates of methane emissions from oil and gas operations are" — meaning that the EPA's estimates of methane emissions (leaks) tend to minimize the problem.

Your bottom line —  We're not only burning ourselves back to the Stone Age (I mean that literally), we're fracking ourselves there too. Time to stop? Perhaps before it's an emergency — or a worse one than we already have? If you think agree that the time to stop is now, click here. There's simple and obvious way out of this, but the clock will soon run out on even that solution.

(A version of this piece appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.)