U.S. Methane Super-Emitters Identified in New Study

WGlobal warming is methane’s worst nightmare. While it might only make up 11% percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions, its initial 20 years of existence in the atmosphere are 80 times better at capturing heat that the more popular carbon dioxide. That’s why it’s so important to spot the worst emitters and shut them down—or at least reduce their output. Now, as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) reports, researchers have taken a big step toward reaching that goal.

A new paper was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesJPL investigators, Arizona State University and the University of Arizona have located the source of methane emissions from 40% of U.S. states. The investigators used two key tools to conduct their study: Arizona State’s Global Airborne Observatory (GAO), an imaging spectrometer carried aboard aircraft flying at 5,500 m (18,000 ft.) that can spot methane point-sources on the ground; and the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite, which does the same job from orbit.

Using both of these eyes in the sky, the investigators identified over 3,000 individual methane super-emitters—defined as sites releasing more than 10 kg (22 lbs) of methane per hour. These sites are oil and gas production sites, sites that produce methane in large quantities, landfills, and mines.

It is important to identify the source of the methane, but it’s not the same thing. Methane-emitting feed lots will continue to exist as long the animals are raised for slaughter. However, oil and gas can take control of the amount methane that they emit in several ways. Currently, they dispose of most of the gas by flaring—essentially burning it off at the mouth of smokestacks—which simply vents it into the sky. Better, cleaner alternatives would include reintroducing it to well sites and selling it off as natural gas. It would also be better to decrease our overall dependence on fossil fuels by switching to cleaner renewable resources like solar and wind power.

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