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Methane leaks in New Mexico are much greater than initially thought

A new study led by Stanford University has found that the amount of methane leaking from the Permian Basin in New Mexico – a huge U.S. oil and gas producing region – is several times greater than the federal government estimates. According to the researchers, more than nine percent of all methane produced in this region is being leaked into the atmosphere.

“We surveyed almost every oil and gas asset in the New Mexico Permian for an entire year to measure and link emissions to specific anonymized facilities,” said study co-lead author Evan Sherwin, a postdoctoral researcher in Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford. “It’s worse than we thought by a long shot.”

While environmental watchers and energy industry engineers have long feared that methane leaks from refineries, mines, wells, storage facilities, and pipelines are usually vastly underreported, until recently they lacked the proper equipment to prove it. Now, by using hyperspectral cameras mounted on airplanes, which can measure sunlight reflected off various airborne chemicals, they managed to properly assess the amount of methane leaks.

“With these sensors, methane is quite easy to spot. We are very confident in our results,” said study co-lead author Yuanlei Chen, a doctoral student in Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford. “The technology has major implications for efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” added study senior author Adam Brandt, an associate professor at Stanford. “These highly sensitive instruments can quickly and accurately pinpoint the relatively smaller number of high-consequence leaks and flag them for immediate repair.”

During the course of 115 flight days over a period of 16 months, the researchers covered 14,000 square miles and more than 26,000 wells, providing much greater insight into the amount of methane leakage than ground-based surveys. They found that most methane was leaked from a handful of sources, with fewer than four percent of the surveyed sites (so-called “super-emitters”) producing half of all methane emissions observed.

Luckily, once leaks are identified, shutting them down is often easy and inexpensive. The scientists hope that these new monitoring techniques could be widely adopted to discover the super-emitters quickly and cut-off damaging methane leaks as soon as possible.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. 

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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