Huge plumes of heat-trapping methane wasted in gas drilling, infrared reveals

Natural gas wells and storage tanks throughout Colorado may look fairly benign to the casual observer, but infrared cameras show them gushing heat-trapping methane into the atmosphere, according to the New York Times and a new documentary called “Split Estate.”

“Split Estate,” an award-winning film that in part chronicles the environmental and health problems associated with the latest natural gas boom in Garfield County, includes a startling segment in which infrared cameras are trained on methane-spewing storage tank that to the naked eye looks fine.

A Wednesday New York Times story leads with an EnCana worker in east Texas pointing an infrared camera at gas well and proclaiming: “Holy smoke, it’s blowing like mad. It does look nasty.”

Methane, according to the Times story, traps 25 times the heat of carbon dioxide and accounts for a full third of human-caused global warming. Plus it only remains in the atmosphere for a decade compared to a century or so for CO2. That means plugging leaky tanks and wells would dramatically reduce heat-trapping gases in a much shorter time.

The dramatic demonstration in “Split Estate” is part of an overall campaign by activists, local environmentalists and simply concerned citizens in Garfield County who hope the county commissioners in November will sign a resolution supporting the FRAC Act, which would remove a Safe Drinking Water Act exemption granted the gas industry during the Bush administration in 2005.

But the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and other groups are also worried about what’s being spewed into the air, citing other potentially hazardous emissions besides heat-trapping methane, which is not considered dangerous unless it builds up enough to explode when ignited.

“The wells that have after burners or emission controls on them, the researchers have said they can reduce the toxic emissions by up to 98 percent, and when you look at an emission source and you imagine a human being living 300, 500, 1,000 feet from the emission source, if you’re reducing your emission levels by 98 percent, then these landowners are only being exposed to 2 percent of the amount of the chemicals,” said Tara Meixsell of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance. “And from what we understand it’s not that prohibitively expensive given the amount of profit they’re getting off of these wells.”

And scientists and industry experts say saving the discharged methane could mean billions of dollars of added revenues for natural gas companies.

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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