A new NASA study finds that a region in the West is producing most of the area's methane emissions that are blamed for contributing to climate change.
The new study takes aim at the "Four Corners" region where the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet and is known for its natural gas production.
"The study finds that just 10 percent of the individual methane sources are contributing half of the emissions," the study concluded.
NASA studied 250 sources of methane from natural gas production and transportation sites. The researchers discovered the Four Corners in 2014 as a "hot spot" for methane emissions more than three times higher than the national average.
As a greenhouse gas, methane is very efficient at trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
The study, led by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
One of the lead researchers on the study said it was proof of the concept that the government is able to examine methane concentrations using its fleet of specially designed Earth observation satellites.
"That we could observe this distribution in a widespread geographical area and collect enough plumes to perform a statistical analysis was a pleasant surprise," said Christian Frankenberg, the study's lead author.
Climate activists immediately seized upon the study as proof that oil and gas production is contributing to global warming and that Washington has to come down hard with new regulations.
"Big oil companies can argue with NASA all they want, but the facts are clear: Methane emissions on public lands are a big problem and it is time for leaders in Washington to bring home a strong rule to tackle the problem," said Chris Saeger, the director of the progressive Western Values Project.
Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico took a similar stance. "Not only is methane a contributor to climate change, it is associated with smog that, combined with other pollutants, has been linked to cancer, lung ailments and other public health problems," he said. "The information in this paper will help us find the most effective way to reduce pollution and protect the air, New Mexico families' health, and the state's economy."
Meanwhile, a coalition of groups representing the oil and gas industry said the study was only an initial one and too narrow to influence national policy.
"The study represents a snapshot in time that can provide valuable information, but is not suitable for extrapolation to monthly, annual or other longer-term emissions estimates," said Christi Zeller, executive director of the La Plata County Energy Council in Colorado. "Certain operational events, such as scheduled maintenance downtime, are temporary and can skew results.
"For example, one gas plant was measured five times, with one outlier measurement that occurred during a scheduled maintenance event," Zeller said.
The groups said they will await other studies being conducted by the Commerce Department and universities about the cause of the emissions in Four Corners before drawing any conclusions.
Many of the energy groups said the shale oil and gas boom has resulted in lower greenhouse gas emissions by offsetting coal with clean-burning natural gas.
"The Energy Information Administration projects that carbon emissions will be lower in 2040, largely thanks to more electricity generation fueled by natural gas," said Tracee Bentley, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council. "Put simply, increased use of natural gas has been at the heart of America's climate progress and will continue to play a major role in emissions reductions well into the future."