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Coalbed natural gas production in the San Juan Basin of New Mexico is the likely source of a high concentration of heat-trapping methane emissions. (Photograph courtesy SkyTruth/Flickr)

Methane Hot Spot in U.S. Predates Fracking Boom, Study Says

An area in the U.S. Southwest that’s about half the size of Connecticut has emitted the country’s largest concentration of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, according to a new analysis of satellite data.

The study, which was released jointly by the American Geophysical Union and NASA, found that between 2003 and 2009, the area released .59 million metric tons of methane each year, which is more than triple the standard estimate for an area of that size. The 2,500-square-mile (6,500 square kilometers) spot lies near the intersection of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.

The hot spot emerged before the rise of hydraulic fracturing, a practice that has spurred concerns about “fugitive” methane emissions—leaks that occur while fracking is under way. Instead, researchers say, the gas is likely coming from leaks during the production of natural gas from coal beds in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. Coalbed methane accounted for about 8 percent of U.S. natural gas production in 2012, according to the study release.

“The results are indicative that emissions from established fossil fuel harvesting techniques are greater than inventoried,” said lead author Eric Kort, a scientist at the University of Michigan, in a statement. “There’s been so much attention on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but we need to consider the industry as a whole.”