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Patrick Springer, Published December 07 2013

Fargo native is lead author of Harvard methane study

FARGO – Scot Miller is grateful that a plane regularly flies above Dahlen in northeast North Dakota to collect air samples that can be analyzed for greenhouse gas emissions.

Miller, a Fargo native, is the lead author of a Harvard study that concluded methane emissions in the United States could be significantly higher than estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The study, released Nov. 25, was widely reported in the U.S., a heady experience for a doctoral student at Harvard who graduated in 2003 from Fargo South High School.

Their conclusion: Emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, could be 1.5 times to 1.7 times greater than EPA estimates, which use a different computational method.

Instead of estimating emissions from ground sources, including oil and gas facilities as well as cattle herds, Miller’s team examined atmospheric measurements taken from instruments mounted on telecommunications towers or aircraft.

That’s where the regular flight over Dahlen, between Grand Forks and Devils Lake, comes into play.

The Harvard researchers examined data for 2007 and 2008, before the boom in the Bakken Formation really took hold and began its dramatic expansion.

Miller and his colleagues will extend their study of methane emissions to the present day, and the Dahlen site, because it is downwind from the Bakken, should capture the changes, he said.

“This site in Dahlen is in a really interesting position,” Miller added, noting that prevailing winds carry weather systems from west to east.

Also, because researchers will be able to compare emissions from oil and gas development before and after the boom, North Dakota provides an interesting window on greenhouse gas emissions, Miller said.

“North Dakota is a particularly interesting case study, I think,” he said. “I think North Dakota is a perfect case study to understand the emissions from the oil and gas industry. We can compare quite clearly the ‘before’ and ‘after.’ ”

‘Exciting experience’

Before starting on the next study phase, Miller must wait for more weather data to become available, something he estimates should take about six months.

Meanwhile, the estimates for methane emissions in 2007 and 2008 serve as a national baseline measure that can serve as a reference point to track changes over time.

But getting the first phase of the study, “Anthropogenic emissions of methane in the United States,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was a thrill for Miller.

When he got an email informing him the team’s findings would be published, he ran down the hall and pounded on the door of his adviser, who at first thought something had gone wrong.

“It was a really exciting experience,” he said, a nice antidote to the hours of drudgery required of scientific research.

Along the way, Miller overcame some challenges, including almost crashing NASA’s supercomputer, which was straining to process almost 13,000 methane emission measurements.

“I got a lot of angry phone calls and disconcerting emails” from NASA’s supercomputer shepherds at the Ames Research Center in California, Miller said.

The methane emissions study is essentially a chapter in Miller’s doctoral dissertation project, which continues a study of greenhouse gas emissions that started when Miller was an undergraduate at Harvard College.

“It’s really difficult to estimate greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. Researchers must gather enormous data sets, and also must devise formulas that capture output from diverse sources.

Estimates can be thrown off, for instance, by malfunctioning or leaking oil and gas installations.

That’s why it’s important for more researchers to test different methods of estimating, so a more accurate picture can be gleaned about the influence of greenhouse gases on climate change, Miller said.

The methane study found that emissions in the south-central U.S. are about 2.7 times greater than in earlier inventories, and account for about a quarter of national emissions.

A spokeswoman for the EPA said the agency welcomes more information about methane emissions.

Interest sparked

Miller’s interest in environmental issues dates back to summers his family spent on Lake Lida in Minnesota’s Lakes Country, and on trips he took to the mountains around Bozeman, Mont., to hike and ski.

He took that interest with him to Harvard, where as an undergraduate he sparked a student movement to support environmental sustainability on the campus.

Miller persuaded a skeptical administration about the benefits of investing $200,000 on renewable energy. His efforts were credited when Harvard received the EPA’s Green Power Award in 2005.

Now, he hopes to provide the EPA with a more accurate reading of environmental factors that influence climate.

“In order to do that we really need to know what those emissions are,” he said. “That’s a really difficult problem.”

And one he relishes trying to solve.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522