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Earth Notes: The Four Corners’ Methane Problem

The San Juan River Basin has a rich human history, visible in places like the ancient pueblo ruins of Chaco Canyon. But it is different relict of a much older history, rooted late in the Age of Dinosaurs, that is drawing attention to the basin these days: methane gas. 

Years ago NASA and University of Michigan researchers studying satellite imagery found a hotspot of methane gas the size of Delaware above the Four Corners region—the largest concentration of atmospheric methane in the country. This past spring, 75 researchers converged on the area for a month to find the source.

The primary suspect is leakage from oil and gas production, although natural seeps, livestock, and landfills also emit methane.

Methane is the main component of natural gas. Along with other fossil fuels, natural gas began forming in the San Juan Basin millions of years ago from the remains of ancient life. Endowed with hydrocarbon richness, the basin has produced energy since the 1920s and is currently one of the nation’s top natural gas fields.

Finding and plugging this series of leaks matters. Methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide and is the target of recent regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some solutions already exist. Experts from the EPA’s Natural Gas STAR Program, for example, collaborate with oil and gas engineers to test and apply leak control technology—the very tools that may be needed to address the San Juan Basin’s methane problem.

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