The methane that leaks from 40,000 gas wells near this desert trading post may be colorless and odorless, but it’s not invisible. It can be seen from space.
Satellites that sweep over energy-rich northern New Mexico can spot the gas as it escapes from drilling rigs, compressors and miles of pipeline snaking across the badlands. In the air it forms a giant plume: a permanent, Delaware-sized methane cloud, so vast that scientists questioned their own data when they first studied it three years ago. “We couldn’t be sure that the signal was real,” said NASA researcher Christian Frankenberg.
The country’s biggest methane “hot spot,” verified by NASA and University of Michigan scientists in October, is only the most dramatic example of what scientists describe as a $2 billion leak problem: the loss of methane from energy production sites across the country. When oil, gas or coal are taken from the ground, a little methane — the main ingredient in natural gas — often escapes along with it, drifting into the atmosphere, where it contributes to the warming of the Earth.