New Mexico hit record highs in oil and gas production this year. This also means record releases of methane, a greenhouse gas that is a biproduct of oil and gas production and is 28 times more potent in its warming effects than carbon dioxide. For a state intent on lowering its carbon footprint, tackling the accidental release of methane is a top priority in moving toward a greener future.
The problem is that there's been no great way to measure how much methane is escaping into the atmosphere, making it incredibly difficult to regulate.
At the 2030 Governor's Energy and Environmental Technology Summit held at SITE Santa Fe on Wednesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a partnership with Santa Fe-based data analysis company Descartes Labs to use information from space-based satellites and other public and private sources to create mapping and modeling tools to detect methane emissions.
The news comes after a series of reports published earlier this year in independent scientific journals found the EPA's estimates for methane emissions in New Mexico likely only account for a fraction of what's actually getting released. The state is already known for having the largest methane cloud in the world. This cloud of gas, released by former and ongoing oil and gas production in the Four Corners region, hangs above Farmington and the area of northwest New Mexico. Yet the amount of methane hanging over the high-producing Permian Basin in the southern part of the state is unknown.
"We can have all of the conversations and all of the strategies that we want, but we have no way to measure our success or to have a baseline from which we are all moving. We can't agree to anything because we have no idea what it actually is or isn't," Lujan Grisham said at the summit, addressing the role that Descartes Labs will play in gathering this data in the future.
"We will have a data refinery … We'll be the first place in the country to both have access to data that's meaningful to us to do something about reducing methane emissions and be very clear about what we are doing, where we are doing it and what's happening as a result, it also means we will close the gap in data we do not have," she said.
Descartes Labs has already begun collecting data from the Permian Basin area and will work toward helping the state curb emissions.
"This data is really about measuring where we are today, pinpointing emitters so we can go close that gap," Mark Johnson, CEO of Descartes Labs told SFR, adding that the next step will be figuring out how to use innovation to capture the escaping methane emissions and use the gas for fuel and other technologies.
"Once we know how bad the problem is, the flip side is that companies in the industry can start to use these raw materials … methane is not just useful as natural gas, it's also useful as a building block for other molecules," Johnson said.
And for the labs, this makes the project such a worthwhile endeavor—it's not just about the research that will be useful in the short term, but about the research that will be useful in the long-term to help direct future developments towards areas of mitigation that have the potential to be financially profitable as well.
Exploring these future innovations was part of the purpose of the summit organized by Descartes Labs to bring together top oil industry players, policy makers, and environmental experts to discuss how technology can be used to strike a balance between making a profit and meeting the state's goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% from 2005 levels by 2030.
There is no contract between the state and the labs to conduct the project. Johnson says its more of a collaboration that involves sharing information with the state that is necessary for writing regulations and policy.
Descartes Labs' methane-detection model will use data from a satellite launched into space in 2017 by the European Space Agency for the explicit purpose of measuring greenhouse gas emissions across the world. The satellite, called the Copernicus Sentinel-5P, started making methane data available within the last year. Lab workers will also use cloud-based super-computing technology to analyze the immense data sets coming from the satellite, and eventually from aerial and ground-based sensors as well.