Best of the West: Tackling methane emissions; Repurposing power plants; Releasing wild buffalo on Tribal Lands; A high-tech mosquito killer; New images from the James Webb Space Telescope

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting July 3, 2023. (Photos courtesy of Hunter D’Antuono and NASA).   

With methane trapping heat in the atmosphere 25 times more efficiently than CO2, Western states have made concerted efforts to reduce methane emissions from two of its legacy industries: ranching and oil and gas production.  

One of the major hurdles to reducing methane emissions is that the sources of this colorless and odorless gas are hard to find.  

With that in mind, MethaneSAT, a nonprofit subsidiary of the Environmental Defense Fund, has started flying a special jet over New Mexico’s San Juan Basin to gather data on sources of methane pollution from the state’s booming oil and gas industry. The nonprofit is using these flights as a precursor to its scheduled satellite launch next year. The hope is that the technology will become the most advanced tracking system of its kind and be able to map methane anywhere on Earth.

The Vision Research Lab at UC Santa Barbra is working on a similar project dubbed MethaneMapper,which uses a hyperspectral imaging tool powered by artificial intelligence to detect real-time methane emissions and trace them to their sources.

Of course, locating leaks is an important step, but figuring out how to effectively capture and repurpose the gas is an entirely different problem.

Chris Caskey, the managing director of MethaneRX, believes he may a solution. MethaneRX currently uses captured gas from the Elk Creek Mine in Gunnison County, Colorado to power the operations at all four of Aspen Skiing Company’s resorts. Using similar technology, he hopes to be able to capture the estimated 1.3 million cubic feet of methane gas leaking from coal mines in Pitkin County each year.

Having proven his concept at the Elk Creek Mine, The White River National Forest recently provided Caskey with a categorical exclusion to begin inventorying methane gas leaking from coal mine vents across 5 square miles of the Coal Basin near Redstone, Colorado. Having partnered with the Aspen-based Community Office for Resource Efficiency, they hope to become the first methane capture project on public lands in Colorado.     

In hopes of spurring similar projects, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $47 million in funding for 22 research projects to advance the development of new measurement, monitoring, and mitigation technologies capable of reducing methane emissions across the oil and natural gas producing regions of the United States. 

The ranching industry, which produces more methane than any other human activity in the U.S., has also taken an aggressive stance on methane.

Researchers at the AgNext program – a specialized research group for sustainability in animal agriculture at Colorado State University – are using specialized feed bins to track every ounce of corn consumed on a per-cow basis and study the gases that are emitted as a byproduct of the complex fermentation process that happens inside a cow’s largest stomach. (Despite common misconceptions about the perils of bovine flatulence, most methane actually comes out of the cow’s front end in the form of enteric emissions).

By better understanding this process, the scientists at CSU hope to be able to reduce emissions by tinkering with the microbiological ecosystem inside each animal’s stomach.

 “We want to find solutions that can help mitigate those emissions to cut the climate impact of beef,” Sara Place, an Animal Sciences Professor at CSU, said.

Ermias Kebreab, a UC Davis professor, has already begun tinkering with this microbiological ecosystem by introducing feed additives like red seaweed or grape pomace, a byproduct of winemaking, into cow feed. Doing so, he said, “could get us into 80-to-90% reduction of methane emissions which was unthinkable about 10 years ago.”

A Washington State University study is even looking at using a microbial culture developed from baby kangaroo feces to help reduce cow-produced methane. After researchers added the baby kangaroo culture and a known methane inhibitor to the simulated stomach, it produced acetic acid instead of methane. Unlike methane, acetic acid has benefits for cows as it aids muscle growth.  

Perhaps the most innovative measure, however, is being pursued by a joint program between the University of California, Davis, UC Berkeley, and UC San Diego, which is operating a $70-million donor-funded initiative that aims to cut methane emissions from cattle by using the genome-editing tool CRISPR on microbes in the cows’ gut.

From Coal to Batteries: Plans for NV Energy to build an industrial-grade battery energy storage system facility at the site of the old Reid Gardner Generation Station, a coal-burning plant that was decommissioned and demolished in 2019, were recently approved by The Moapa Town Advisory Board. Once completed, the 220-megawatt facility will store energy from the grid during periods of low energy demand during the day and feed the stored energy back onto the grid to be used during peak demand periods later in the day.

Learn more about how western communities are working to transition coal communities in WGA’s Out West Podcast.

Where the Buffalo Roam: On June 26, the Blackfeet Nation in Montana released 46 wild bison onto their tribal landsnear Chief Mountain, which borders Glacier National Park, marking the first time bison roamed free on these lands in 150 years.

“They’re a keystone species culturally as well as ecologically,” said Lauren Monroe Jr., vice chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. “We felt it was important to release this herd and manage this program according to our cultural and ecological principles while also respecting those of our partners.”

High-Tech Mosquito Killer: The Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District in California has begun using drones that rain down larvae-killing bacterial spore pellets to attack mosquito development in marshes, large ponds, and parks. Unlike more traditional anti-mosquito treatments like backpack sprayers, trucks, airplanes, and helicopters, the drone allows more precise treatments and avoids the need to trample through sensitive lands. According to a vector ecologist for the district, the drone is able to treat 1 acre of land in under two minutes, a task that would take more than an hour of hiking by a worker with a backpack.

Saturn's Rings Revealed: New infrared images from the James Webb Space Telescope reveal Saturn’s rings as you’ve never seen them before. The images also unveil unexpected features in Saturn's atmosphere. This image serves as context for an observing program that will test the telescope's capacity to detect faint moons around the planet and its bright rings. Any newly discovered moons could help scientists put together a more complete picture of the current system of Saturn, as well as its past.

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