Delaware-Size Gas Plume over West Illustrates the Cost of Leaking Methane
by Joby Warrick (The Washington Post) The methane that leaks from 40,000 gas wells near this desert trading post may be colorless and odorless, but it’s not invisible. It can be seen from space.
Satellites that sweep over energy-rich northern New Mexico can spot the gas as it escapes from drilling rigs, compressors and miles of pipeline snaking across the badlands. In the air it forms a giant plume: a permanent, Delaware-sized methane cloud, so vast that scientists questioned their own data when they first studied it three years ago. “We couldn’t be sure that the signal was real,” said NASA researcher Christian Frankenberg.
The country’s biggest methane “hot spot,” verified by NASA and University of Michigan scientists in October, is only the most dramatic example of what scientists describe as a $2 billion leak problem: the loss of methane from energy production sites across the country. When oil, gas or coal are taken from the ground, a little methane — the main ingredient in natural gas — often escapes along with it, drifting into the atmosphere, where it contributes to the warming of the Earth.
Methane accounts for about 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the biggest single source of it — nearly 30 percent — is the oil and gas industry, government figures show. All told, oil and gas producers lose 8 million metric tons of methane a year, enough to provide power to every household in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
But environmentalists say relatively modest government restrictions on gas leaks could reap substantial rewards for taxpayers and the planet. Because methane is such a powerful greenhouse gas — with up to 80 times as much heat-trapping potency per pound as carbon dioxide over the short term — the leaks must be controlled if the United States is to have any chance of meeting its goals for cutting the emissions responsible for climate change, said David Doniger, who heads the climate policy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
“This is the most significant, most cost-effective thing the administration can do to tackle climate change pollution that it hasn’t already committed to do,” Doniger said. READ MORE