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Time to update methane regs?

One of four public hearings nationwide to be held Tuesday in Farmington

In the vortex of the Four Corners methane hot spot, it’s only fitting the city of Farmington will hold one of only four public hearings across the country for a proposal aimed at updating 30-year-old regulations on methane and natural gas releases from public and tribal lands.

In January, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel put forward new rules that would reduce the wasteful release of natural gas into the environment from oil and gas operations on Bureau of Land Management and Native American lands.

“I think most people would agree that we should be using our nation’s natural gas to power our economy – not wasting it by venting and flaring it into the atmosphere,” said Jewell at that time. “We need to modernize decades-old standards ... so that we can cut down on harmful methane emissions.”

Measures would include requiring energy companies to ban intentional releases and burning of waste, routinely inspect and repair leaks, as well as improve and install the most up-to-date technologies and infrastructure.

BLM officials estimated the tougher regulations would reduce methane emissions – a gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide – about 169,000 tons per year, and decrease volatile organic compound releases by 410,000 tons per year.

“The announcement ... is consistent with the Obama Administration’s goal to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2015,” the Department of Interior said in a Jan. 22 statement.

Not surprisingly, the industry immediately pushed back. The Independent Petroleum Association of America’s vice president Dan Naatz said with oil and natural gas prices dropping, new fees and regulations could cripple energy companies.

“This is the latest in the string of bad policies released by this administration showing a lack of knowledge of how the oil and gas industry truly works,” Naatz told the Natural Gas Intelligence this week.

“Imposing these new regulations will make it more expensive and harder for independent producers to operate, reducing America’s total energy production.”

Still, the Department of the Interior reported U.S. oil production is at its highest level in nearly 30 years, and while that provides affordable energy, substantial increases in methane leaks are imminent if tighter regulations are not put in place.

The debate in the Four Corners takes on special meaning.

“It’s timely that BLM finally acknowledges its responsibility to participate in analyzing and reducing air emissions from the hundreds of oil and gas projects they approve yearly in the San Juan Basin,” said Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate programs manager for the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

“Capturing the currently wasted methane from BLM-permitted oil and gas facilities will potentially reduce the 2,500-square-mile methane ‘hot spot’ in the Four Corners.”

In 2014, satellite images captured a massive “hot spot” of methane over the Four Corners, which is the second largest producer of natural gas in the U.S. Several leading research groups followed up with a more expansive study last spring, focusing on methane sources. The results will be announced in Durango at an event not yet scheduled.

The industry, for its part, has maintained that natural sources, such as outcroppings, as well as the contribution of coal mines, gas refineries and agriculture make it too complicated to blame natural gas operations.

Still, federal agencies seek to crack down on an industry that has been largely unregulated since natural gas boomed during the last 30 years. The Environmental Protection Agency also is slated to release new methane rules this spring.


If you go

A public hearing to consider updating regulations on methane and natural gas releases on public and tribal lands will be from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday in Room 7103 at San Juan College, 4601 College Blvd., in Farmington.

Feb 13, 2016
New methane rule has support in northern New Mexico

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