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A Colorado effort helped to spur a new industry centered on hunting methane


The oil and gas industry has a methane problem. That climate-warming gas often escapes from wells and pipelines. The Biden administration has just proposed new rules that will force companies to plug the leaks. Colorado did something very similar starting about seven years ago, and it helped create an entirely new industry - hunting methane. Here's Sam Brasch of Colorado Public Radio.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: It's a crisp Rocky Mountain morning when Dan Zimmerle watches a drone take off in Fort Collins, Colo. It flies over what looks like an oil and gas well pad. Really, it's not.

DAN ZIMMERLE: I like to call it Hollywood well pads. It's a movie set for leak detection.

BRASCH: A movie set because the tanks and pipes don't actually produce any fossil fuels. Instead, they're rigged to release set amounts of methane. Companies then come to test out their technology to detect the pollutant, like the drone you're hearing now. Zimmerle directs the laboratory for Colorado State University.

ZIMMERLE: So what we do is we bring the solutions in here, and we can do controlled releases and controlled measurements of their performance.

BRASCH: Not just drones, but also high-tech cameras, real-time sensors or gas-detection lasers - all could be critical as the planet confronts climate change. That's because methane packs a much bigger heat-trapping punch than carbon dioxide, its more common climate-warming cousin. Recent studies also suggest oil and gas operations might be missing more methane leaks than previously thought.

JON GOLDSTEIN: Unless we dramatically curtail methane emissions, there's a big question mark as to the future of this industry.

BRASCH: This is Jon Goldstein with the Environmental Defense Fund. Another key point - he says methane doesn't stay in the atmosphere as long as other greenhouse gases. That means cutting it can help slow global warming more quickly. Colorado became the first state to regulate methane in 2014. Since then, Goldstein says the state's oil and gas industry has kept growing, but its methane emissions appear to have increased more slowly.

GOLDSTEIN: These rules have, you know, not led to the end of an industry but, really, the beginning of a new one.

BRASCH: A new industry dedicated to methane detection. Goldstein's group recently conducted a survey of those businesses. It found they now employ more than 700 people nationwide. And he expects more could pop up thanks to the expanded federal regulations. But not everyone is happy to hire those businesses. Sam Bradley manages a small oil and gas operation in Colorado. He says it produces a heavier oil than other sites, which has led to overestimates of his emissions.

SAM BRADLEY: Large-scale statewide blanket emissions don't take into account the fact that kind of every well and every company is like a fingerprint; they're all different and unique.

BRASCH: Dan Zimmerle, the methane-detection scientist, basically agrees.

ZIMMERLE: Different sizes of sites will require different types of solutions. We know that already.

BRASCH: That's why he's glad the new federal rules allow for a range of methane-detection tools. In the future, he imagines planes or satellites could quickly identify big leaks, then smaller devices could help find a specific faulty valve or pipe.

ZIMMERLE: The real answer, in the end, will be some hybrid of multiple different solution types. You can use something that would find large leaks fast and then something that would find small leaks eventually.

BRASCH: He says Colorado's example shows technology is rising to the challenge. The question now - whether it can be scaled up quickly enough to actually slow the climate crisis.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Brasch in Fort Collins, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANYONS OF STATIC'S "MAPS AND MAZES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Brasch
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