A press release from NASA The Jet Propulsion Laboratory about its new mineral mapping instrument on the International Space Station sent staff at the Oil Conservation Division (OCD) into an uproar in the last week of October. The notification, sent to science enthusiasts around the world, featured the agency’s new ground camera and led with an image of a massive methane leak from a gas well along the Pecos River, 10 miles southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico.
In the image, the emerging cloud extends just over two miles due north, a riot of angry reds and blues reflecting varying concentrations of the incredibly potent greenhouse gas. These high concentrations are why the new instrument detected the event it wasn’t exactly looking for. NASA’s Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation — known as EMIT — originally went into space to map minerals in this planet’s deserts to understand how dust from those locations affects global climate. Methane detection is a bonus.
“It’s not formally part of the mission as stated and funded,” says Andrew K. Thorpe, a research technologist at JPL who works on the project and has studied methane emissions for the past decade. “I’m just taking a small subset of the data that’s already being collected on this other NASA mission and using it for the methane work.”
The new plume near Carlsbad vented more than 40,300 pounds of methane per hour.
In addition to the image, NASA documented an hour-long release rate at the site that was far greater than the amount reported for all of 2022 at the nearest drill site. “OCD immediately contacted NASA for more information and began investigating a possible major release as soon as the information became available,” said Sidney Hill, spokesman for the Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources, operating under the OCD is. He says that the day after receiving the NASA press release, OCD inspectors were on site examining the area in the photo.
That clue and the colorful image from Karlovy Vary were the first mentions of methane on the project’s website, but the discovery of the climate-warming gas wasn’t entirely unexpected. The EMIT instrument on the ISS is an updated version of a similar project that has been mapping methane emissions in the Permian Basin in recent years. Thorpe says that earlier project defined places like those near Carlsbad as “super emitters” because of the phenomenal amounts of methane they release. On those previous flights, he says, they detected emissions from wells and other equipment ranging from 22 to 44,000 pounds of methane per hour. The upper end of this range were the “super emitters”.
This new cloud near Carlsbad vented more than 40,300 pounds of methane per hour. Thorpe says, “We can confidently say that these are large emissions, and they belong to this ‘super-emitter’ class.” This class accounts for a small percentage of the total number of emission sites, but collectively their huge amounts carry 40 to 50 % of methane emissions for a given area, he says.
“OCD believes the NASA images show the point of estimated highest concentration at the time the image was taken, but does not necessarily identify the specific source,” Hill said. “OCD checked the entire area around the cloud. OCD is still reviewing the results of its on-site investigation.”
Overlay of NASA image with OCD’s online oil and gas map shows the highest concentration of methane at Harroun Com #001, a well operated by Marathon Oil. Thorpe said the reading was taken “in the July-August period” but he couldn’t pinpoint the exact date because guidelines violate the release of individual data points (like a single emission) before the release of an entire dataset.
Last year, OCD introduced new statewide venting and flaring regulations to reduce the industry’s natural gas emissions to less than 2% of total production emissions by 2026, so what arrives at a pipeline matches what comes out of the well comes out. Failing to report an emission like the one in the NASA image can result in fines of up to $2,500 a day, according to Hill.
Karina Brooks, a communications manager at Marathon Oil, said via email: “Based on our initial review of the data, including our wells in the area, it does not appear that our operations are the source(s) of methane emissions reflected in the photo .”
Thorpe said high concentrations of methane, like that in the center of the plume, indicate the source of a leak, but “other than that there’s a little ambiguity.” The pixel size of the instrument’s camera captures squares 60 feet in diameter, so smaller locations cannot be distinguished. But the closest well or other equipment is over 2,200 feet from the cloud’s hot spot and the Marathon well.
The NASA-documented release rate of 40,300 pounds of methane per hour is 5% higher than the total venting reported to the state from Marathon’s well for all of 2022 to date. That’s an amount roughly equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of 100 cars driven for a year, released into the atmosphere every hour.
“We will be working with the state agency to investigate the matter, which limits our ability to deal with it [this] Check out the details at this point,” Brooks said.
The EPA has indicated it may soon make the Permian Basin an ozone depletion zone under the Clean Air Act, which would require tighter controls on emissions from oil and gas fields.
Thorpe said the image is a snapshot due to the nature of the ISS’s orbit, which is offset by several degrees each time it races around the globe. It orbits the earth about 16 times a day, but because of the offset, it takes three days to fly over the same spot.
“We don’t know if it has emitted before. We don’t know if it emitted afterwards. But we know we caught an emission at that location,” he said.
“I find it frightening that it’s so close,” said Kayley Shoup, an organizer with environmental and community group Citizens Caring for the Future. She lives in Karlovy Vary and is concerned about the associated gases escaping with methane, contributing to ozone and smog in the area and causing breathing problems. The EPA has indicated it may soon make the Permian Basin an ozone depletion zone under the Clean Air Act, which would require tighter controls on emissions from oil and gas fields.
Hill said OCD is investigating the release to find the source but could not comment further on a case that is still under investigation.
And maybe OCD should prepare for similar investigations in the future. Thorpe says methane information from EMIT and other dedicated methane-tracking satellites, due to be launched over the next two years, will greatly improve the world’s ability to find, locate and measure oil and gas methane emissions. “There will be more examples and shared more often,” he said.
“I think it’s in everyone’s interest to know about it,” he said. “You give people data and hopefully they will use it accordingly.”
Thorpe said JPL plans to launch a public data portal with all mission data early next year. Shoup said she’s excited to have a new online resource to document large methane emissions in her backyard. “This is really such wonderful news,” she said.
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