How We Made Images of Methane, an Invisible Gas

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I’ve been asked to film and photograph many things, all across the world. I have been shooting video for The Times since 2011 and manage a small team of video journalists who specialize in cinematography. But this winter was the first time I was assigned to photograph something that is invisible: methane gas. It was not easy.

Methane is a main component of natural gas and is warming our planet at an alarming rate. If everyone could see it, we might feel differently about how we regulate it.

This November, the climate investigative reporter Hiroko Tabuchi and I traveled to the Permian Basin in Texas, America’s largest oil field, with the mission of showing people what they cannot see with their own eyes.

We used a custom-built FLIR A8389sc infrared camera to capture these images. The camera converts infrared energy into an electronic signal to create moving pictures. Its filter allows infrared wavelengths between 3.2 and 3.4 micrometers on the electromagnetic spectrum to pass through to the sensor For reference, humans only see between 0.4 and 0.7 micrometers.

In order to visualize the gas, the camera uses helium to cool the sensor to the temperature of liquid nitrogen, around minus 200 degrees Celsius. This requires a lot of power. So we had to lug around an external computer backup battery as well as a laptop that controls the camera. Our setup was not exactly nimble or discrete.

Instead of using traditional photography lenses, which are of course made of glass, the infrared images were created using lenses made from germanium, a metal that is transparent at infrared wavelengths.

Once we figured out how to photograph methane, the next question was, how would we know where to look for it? Production in the Permian Basin, in Texas and New Mexico, has helped make the United States the top oil producer in the world. It seemed like a good place to check. So The Times chartered an airborne atmospheric research plane to fly over an area of West Texas peppered with several oil and gas sites.

In the tiny two-seat propeller plane, I sat surrounded by cameras and computers, flying only 500 feet above the parched ground.

A computer showed live methane readings. We flew circles around production sites to identify where the leaks were. One site required 10 laps to get an accurate reading. It was a dizzying experience.

Once we had our methane and GPS data from the sky, we hit the road. And that’s where it got tricky. We couldn’t simply walk right up to the leak sites, we had to find the actual leak and be able to film it. Sometimes that meant shooting through fences, sometimes through bushes, often on the side of the road with 16-wheelers passing by at 100 miles per hour.

The landscape of the Permian Basin is rugged. Oil is everything there. It’s an endless landscape of wells, pipes and compressor sites. Old oil tanks littered the side of the highway. We called it the tank graveyard.

At one point, we saw a well catch fire. After hearing a loud boom, we raced there — and arrived before the Fire Department. The police at the scene said it happened all the time.

But capturing images was just one step. Getting them to our readers was another.

The FLIR camera has no buttons and is operated with a computer. The raw data is exported as a Windows media file, an antiquated format I hadn’t seen since the Napster days.

So John Whitehead, a software engineer at The Times, built an app to convert the files into something we could use.

Natural gas is supposed to be a cleaner form of energy than coal, because when it burns it produces less carbon dioxide — a major greenhouse gas. But if methane is leaking directly into the atmosphere, it can warm the planet more than 80 times as much as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Oil and gas companies have lobbied for looser methane regulations, including at the sites where we measured high emissions. Methane gas levels in the atmosphere are on the rise, and sources are difficult to track.

Our images make visible what is happening.

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