The Biggest Methane Leak in America Is in New Mexico

Written by Gayathri Vaidyanathan and ClimateWire

Researchers using satellite data have pinpointed New Mexico’s San Juan Basin as a major source of leaking methane in the United States. methane averages

The region was responsible for 10 percent of all the methane emissions from the natural gas sector in the country, according to a study published yesterday in Geophysical Research Letters. If gas, coal mining and petroleum sectors are included, the San Juan Basin was responsible for 5 percent of the emissions.

The region emitted 0.59 million metric tons of methane every year between 2003 and 2009, the study found. That rate is three times the amount reported in the European Union’s greenhouse gas inventory, called EDGAR. It is 1.8 times the reported value in U.S. EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program.

The high emissions were recorded in 2003, prior to the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a technique used to extract oil and gas from shale reservoirs. But parts of the oil and gas system were leaking even before fracking, said Eric Kort, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study.

“There is a lot of fixation on high-volume hydraulic fracturing,” he said. “The point here is we see this [methane leaks] from an earlier time period in the San Juan, and it is indicative that we can’t just be fixated on one part; we have to focus on the industry as a whole.”

The results are similar to a ClimateWire analysis of EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program data that found the San Juan Basin is the leakiest when only the biggest companies emitting more than 25,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases are considered. The analysis tied much of the San Juan’s emissions to coalbed methane wells owned by the largest operator in the basin, ConocoPhillips (ClimateWire, Oct. 6).

The study was based on both space and ground observations. Kort and his colleagues used a satellite that produced images of methane and could see that the region at the intersection of four states, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, had high concentrations of the gas.

Results validated by ground observations
They verified their observations on the ground using a device that looks up at the sun and measures the total greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. The ground observations helped validate the observations from space.

Kort hypothesizes that the emissions are coming from coalbed methane extraction. The San Juan Basin is the largest producer of natural gas from coal beds, and it is currently unclear if coalbed methane wells emit more than conventional or unconventional natural gas wells.

Kort said that the San Juan may be showing up as a hot spot in satellite images because of its geography and wind patterns; other basins, like the Barnett Shale, which produce a lot more natural gas from unconventional and conventional reservoirs, may just not show up because the wind diffuses the emitted methane, he said.

But overall, his study warrants a closer look at emissions from the San Juan Basin, he said.

This is the first time scientists have used satellites to image greenhouse gas emissions on the ground. The study demonstrates the power of space-based observations, said Christian Frankenberg, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-author of the study, in a statement.

“Satellite data cannot be as accurate as ground-based estimates, but from space, there are no hiding places,” he said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500

Comments (4)

  • Avatar

    Yeldir Retep


    HiSunsettommy (PSI web-page administrator Thomas Richard for those who don’t know),

    Isn’t it time that the misleading entry at the bottomn of the PSI web-pages that “Principia Scientific International (PSI) is a not-for-profit community interest subsidiary of PSI Acumen Ltd. Registered Office: Penhurst House, 352-356 Battersea Park Road, London, England, SW11 3BY” was removed.

    It has been sitting there since PSIA was formed by out-of-work high-school art teacher John O’Sullivan in March 2013.

    As I understand company law, PSI was never a “subsidiary” of PSIA. Now that Companies House has declared PSIA to be “struck off and dissolved” PSI certainly isn’t a “subsidiary” of any company. It has never been registered as a community interest company (CIC), despite John O’Sullivan’s claim since 17th January that “Once obtaining the necessary start up funds PSI will become ..chartered to operate as a ‘not for profit’ under the rules of the UK’s Community Interest Company (CIC) initiative .. “.

    That claim is made in John O’Sullivan’s appeal for charitable donations towards setting up PSI as a private company, which until recently appeared on the “gofundme” web-site ( Although that page now says “Error 404 Not Found” there are still copies available. One is at but if that one suddenly vanishes then USA investigative journalist Andrew Skolnick has made one available (


  • Avatar

    Physicist w. 50 yrs experience



    Now, because the sloping thermal plane is really the state of thermodynamic equilibrium it acts like the level surface of a lake when new rain (thermal energy absorbed) occurs in some region of the lake (troposphere) and that new water (thermal energy) spreads out in all accessible directions away from the source of new water or thermal energy. This is simply because the extra kinetic energy in the warmed molecules causes net movement away from the source as these molecules collide with adjacent ones. But remember, it occurs in all accessible directions, so it can mean that thermal energy moves downwards to warmer regions provided that all it is doing is bringing about a new state of thermodynamic equilibrium after the previous state was disturbed.

    When there is such a disturbance to the state of thermodynamic equilibrium due to the addition of new thermal energy, then, we observe convection away from that source. So if the Earth’s surface is warmed one sunny morning in a particular region, the convection appears to go only upwards into the air. But it also goes downwards in the oceans and energy also goes downwards by conduction into the surface, so the outer layer of rocks gets warmed for example. But if air is warmed by the Sun in the upper troposphere there can be downwards heat transfer, even through the clouds and on down to the surface, which can thus get warmed even when there is total cloud cover.

    The temperature at the base of a planet’s troposphere is determined primarily by radiating temperature and the gravitationally induced temperature gradient. Radiating molecules have a temperature-levelling effect and thus reduce the temperature gradient a little. The resulting temperature at the base of the troposphere supports the surface temperature by slowing or stopping the cooling n the early pre-dawn hours.

  • Avatar

    Physicist w. 50 yrs experience


    Methane causes no problem relating to warming.

    To all readers:

    Most people don’t understand convection and why it can just as easily go downwards in a planet’s troposphere as upwards. Disregarding radiation for the moment, an ideal non-radiating gas (say 80% pure nitrogen and 20% pure oxygen) in calm conditions (or even in a tall, sealed and perfectly insulated cylinder) tends towards the state of thermodynamic equilibrium, as the Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates it must do, increasing entropy until a maximum entropy state is attained. Such a state can have no unbalanced energy potentials, this being obvious because if it did then entropy could still increase as work could be done.

    Now, that is why we observe a density gradient in a vertical cylinder in a gravitational field. Gravity acts on molecules in flight between collisions. So-called hydrostatic equilibrium is exactly the same as thermodynamic equilibrium. You can’t have any equilibrium until you have maximum entropy within the constraints of the isolated system, of course.

    The density gradient forms because more molecules are needed at the base of the column than at the top in order to maintain mechanical equilibrium. This is because molecules going downwards gain kinetic energy, just as does a stone when falling. But temperature is proportional to the mean kinetic energy of the molecules, and for there to be no unbalanced energy potentials, the additional gravitational potential energy per molecule at the top must be offset by an equal reduction in kinetic energy. Hence the same process whereby gravity forms a density gradient also forms a temperature gradient which we derive simply by equating PE lost with KE gained: M.g.dH = M.Cp.dT so that dT/dH=g/Cp.
    as explained in an earlier comment above.

  • Avatar



    Natural gas is called ‘natural’ because it exists throughout the Earth’s biosphere and the Universe. On Earth, Methane and the entire Hydrocarbon series are byproducts of Earths internal fission heat and elemental atoms from fission decay. Petroleum is not here, or anywhere, solely the byproduct of organic decay, as the Hubbert ‘peak’ oil hypothesis claims.

    See….”Fracturing the Fossil Fuel Fable” posted in archive here at PSI for detailed description on this process, as well as articles under the Geo-nuclear tab at FauxScienceSlayer. Petroleum is a renewable recourse for the next few million years and to state otherwise is to support another myth in the Carbon demonization meme.

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