Researchers Fly Over Shale Fields To Study Air Pollution

Apr 21, 2015
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now the science of what's in our air - how to figure out what's polluting it. Capturing what comes out of the tailpipe or power plant is fairly straightforward. It gets more complicated with oil and gas fields. Well, this month, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA are flying an airborne research lab over states with these fields. Mose Buchele sent this report from member station KUT in Austin.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: The researchers are looking at the big picture, flying over America's sprawling shale fields. Those are the places where fracking created a boom in oil and gas drilling. The project tracks things like ozone and methane emissions.

JOOST DE GOUW: And the reason that's important is that methane is a very potent greenhouse gas.

BUCHELE: Dr. Joost de Gouw is the NOAA scientist in charge. One thing he wants to know - what fraction of the stuff being extracted escapes into the atmosphere? Some shale fields leak more than others.

DE GOUW: And we'd like to know where that variability comes from.

BUCHELE: More on that later. It's time to meet Miss Piggy.

Hey guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hi. How are you doing?

BUCHELE: That's the P-3 Orion turboprop airplane the team uses.

MARK SWEENY: Miss Piggy is the name of this plane, the patron saint or whatever of the plane.

BUCHELE: And this is what it sounds like before takeoff. Mark Sweeny is the aircraft commander. When he's not flying low over gas wells, he's on choppier missions, like soaring into hurricanes. Miss Piggy's got 89 under her belt.

SWEENY: So yeah, she's been around a while and has definitely seen some action.

BUCHELE: The plane's cabin's been stripped down and rebuilt as a flying lab. Ahead of takeoff, scientists tinker with the equipment that lines the walls. Up in the air, one team on board and one on the ground will measure readings upwind and downwind of oil and gas activity. Jeff Peischl is one of the researchers. He monitors methane, ethane and ammonia.

JEFF PEISCHL: Basically, I'm sucking air in through that tube and it goes into the instrument and then back out the belly of the plane at the exhaust.

BUCHELE: Part of his job is to figure out what methane comes from fossil fuels and what comes from other sources like, say, cows. So I had to ask.

PEISCHL: No, you can't smell methane, really. But you can smell the ammonia if you're downwind of a feedlot.

BUCHELE: Methane with a lot of ethane - that's from the oilfields. Methane with ammonia, maybe cows.

SWEENY: Welcome to planeside.

BUCHELE: Just before takeoff, Commander Sweeny runs through safety procedures. Today, the team's heading over the Eagle Ford shale in South Texas.

SWEENY: All right. Ready? Break.

BUCHELE: Some scientists buckle up for a seven-hour ride. I joined the research team on the ground.

And away they go. Meanwhile, back here on the ground, we have members of the team staying in communication with them in the airport lobby.

CARSTON WARANEKE: We can say hi right now.

BUCHELE: Scientists like Carston Waraneke say it's easier to track the data away from the plane as it crisscrosses the field at a low altitude. Remember, they're looking at the big picture.

WARANEKE: This is the amount of gas that was produced. This is the amount that was leaked. And then we're trying to get more information on the fields themselves and see how they are different from each other.

BUCHELE: There are a lot of factors that cause one shale field to emit more pollution than another - things like what's being pumped from the ground, the techniques and equipment used and the strength or weakness of regulation in the state where it's going on.

DE GOUW: So we started our sampling pattern. When I look out the window, I see a very large number of well pads.

BUCHELE: While the earthbound researchers stare into their computers, Dr. de Gouw flies somewhere overhead. I'd asked him to record his work.

DE GOUW: So the concentrations of various trace gases released from the industry are now increasing from south to north.

BUCHELE: After the flight, he said the mission was a success. In the coming months, he'll compare Eagle Ford shale data with other regions. By the end of the month, they fly missions over oil and gas fields in several states, including North Dakota, Utah, Oklahoma and Colorado. For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.