BOULDER, Colo. (AP) – Researchers are taking to the air to measure trace emissions over oil and gas production sites in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, the Niobrara shale formation of northern Colorado and Wyoming, and the Four Corners.

Scientists from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plan 15 research flights out of Colorado and Texas between now and May, the Daily Camera, a Boulder, Colorado, newspaper, reported Monday.

The researchers are using aircraft equipped with chemical instruments, and tell the Camera that once their data is collected, it will take more than a year to synthesize.

Trace greenhouse gases are released during hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, a process that involves injecting water, sand and chemicals deep underground to fracture rocks and release oil and gas. U.S. natural gas production has increased thanks to fracking, and the drilling technique has raised environmental and health concerns.

Joost de Gouw, a research physicist and lead scientist on the project, said methane emissions are of particular interest. Natural gas, he said, is mostly methane. Although carbon dioxide is more abundant in the atmosphere, when compared molecule to molecule, methane is a more potent greenhouse gas.

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The researchers will be looking for values in excess of methane’s typical atmospheric concentration of 1.85 parts per million. Previous measurements in Colorado, de Gouw said, have shown that methane can go over 2 parts per million.

Another area of focus will be organic compounds and nitrogen oxide. When combined in the atmosphere, these trace gases form ozone and fine particles that affect air quality. Under the Clean Air Act, these particles are classified as pollutants and strictly regulated.

Gouw said researchers are studying sites that have shown a large variability in these emissions, and scientists are unsure why.

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