CSD News & Events:

News & Events - 2015

Studying the Air above Oil and Gas Production Areas in the Western United States

19 March 2015
map showing oil and gas fields production areas in the lower 48 states

Map: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Some of the oil and gas production areas that will be studied during the March-April flights of SONGNEX. Red circles show the range of the research aircraft for flights based in Colorado and Texas.

NOAA and CIRES lead airborne field campaign to look at climate and air quality impacts.

Vast regions west of the Mississippi River are under development for oil and gas extraction, and the associated equipment has become a familiar sight on any cross-country road trip or flight. But while one focus is on what comes out of the ground, NOAA and CIRES researchers and their colleagues are studying what escapes to the air—and how it is transformed in the atmosphere and affects air quality and climate. The scientists are using a suite of state-of-the-art chemical instruments aboard a research aircraft this spring in the NOAA-led Shale Oil and Natural Gas Nexus (SONGNEX) 2015 field campaign, to study the atmospheric effects of energy production in the western U.S.

Domestic production of oil and natural gas is increasing, as technological advances in directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing (commonly called "fracking") have made the production of oil and natural gas from tight sand and shale formations economically viable. With the increased production comes increased emission of methane, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other trace gases to the atmosphere.

The escaped gases have several possible implications, says Joost de Gouw, lead scientist for SONGNEX and a senior scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), a partnership of NOAA and the University of Colorado Boulder.

NOAA WP-3D aircraft

Photo: D. Oonk, CIRES

The NOAA WP-3D research aircraft will carry scientists and instruments to sample the air above oil and gas production fields in the western U.S. Flights begin the week of March 22.

"Both climate and air quality are affected by the gases that escape during oil and gas production. And some of them, like methane, affect both issues," said de Gouw, who works in the Chemical Sciences Division (CSD) of the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder, Colorado.

CIRES and NOAA research has shown that many different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted in the production fields, and that the amount emitted depends greatly on the equipment and production practices in use. The VOCs are key starting ingredients that lead to the production of ozone, a lower-atmosphere pollutant regulated because of its health effects. Other chemical reactions transform the emissions and gases in the air into airborne fine particles, which are also an air quality issue.

Methane emissions are a particular focus because, molecule-for-molecule, it is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane's lower overall abundance in the atmosphere (compared to CO2) leads to its ranking as the second most important greenhouse gas emitted by human activities. Previous NOAA and CIRES work has shown that production activities in some basins emit far more methane than others.

oil extraction equipment

Photo: B. Lerner, NOAA / CIRES

Oil extraction equipment in Uintah Basin, Utah.

SONGNEX will shed a lot more light on what's going on in the atmosphere above oil and gas production fields, by focusing on basins that represent a mixture of oil and gas production regions at various stages of development. Over a dozen instruments will fly aboard the NOAA WP-3D research aircraft and will sample the air above fields ranging from the Four Corners area and Texas, to Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Flights will be based out of Colorado and Texas beginning in late March and extending throughout the month of April. Colleagues* from universities, industry, and other agencies are joining NOAA and CIRES in the effort.

* Collaborators include Yale University, University of Wisconsin, University of Washington, Harvard University, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. University of Calgary, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Environment Canada, and Aerodyne, Inc.

More information:

High Country News: Tracking energy's 'fugitive emissions' from above 31 August 2015

NPR: Researchers Fly Over Shale Fields To Study Air Pollution 21 April 2015

NPR StateImpact (Texas): Scientists Are Flying Over Texas Oil and Gas Fields To Measure Air Pollution 13 April 2015

KUT News Radio (Austin, Texas): How 'Miss Piggy' Helps Scientists Study Oil and Gas Field Emissions from Above 10 April 2015

CIRES Press Release: Scientists probe methane emission mystery in Four Corners region 7 April 2015

Bloomberg: Shale Crews Being Watched From Above as Emissions Levels Tested 1 April 2015

KUNC (Community Radio for Northern Colorado): Research Flights Probe Why Some Oil & Gas Basins Pollute More Than Others 27 March 2015

Natural Gas Intelligence (NGI) Shale Daily: NOAA Flybys Gathering Trace Emission Data From U.S. Oil, Natural Gas Basins 24 March 2015

Denver Post: Research planes to study Western gas emissions 23 March 2015

Boulder Daily Camera: Boulder researchers take to sky for look at emissions' impact on air quality 22 March 2015

CSD News Topic: Oil and Gas Industry Research

CIRES Press Release: Studying the air above oil and gas production areas in the U.S. West

NOAA Research: Studying the air above oil and gas production areas in the western United States