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Capturing methane leaks protects all of us

Gwen Lachelt

Thirty-five years ago this month, The Durango Herald ran a front-page article announcing that Amoco was planning to drill a thousand gas wells in La Plata County. Today, over 3,500 wells have been drilled, and more than 30,000 gas and oil wells have been developed across the state line in New Mexico. The drilling boom that began in 1988 and waned in 2008 following the global collapse of gas prices left many impacts in its wake, including the Four Corners methane “hotspot.”

The San Juan Basin was a guinea pig for an experimental drilling and fracking process to extract gas from underground coal seams, known as coalbed methane. The drilling boom outpaced the ability of local, state and federal agencies to respond appropriately to the initial problems. County residents were experiencing (and some still experience) a staggering number of health and environmental impacts, including methane migrating into area water wells, basements and crawl spaces; wells being drilled 150 feet from homes; choking dust and noise from heavy truck traffic; fumes, odors and noise from well facilities; poor air quality; and degradation of wildlife habitat.

Area farmers and ranchers found themselves in the middle of an industrial spiderweb of wells, pipelines and compressor stations. Thankfully, vigilant community organizing eventually led to new laws and regulations protecting landowners and governing drilling and fracking operations. But more needs to be done.

First identified by a NASA satellite in 2014, the “hotspot” is a cloud of methane the size of Delaware. Caused by gas being leaked and flared from gas well facilities and pipelines, this pollution harms more than the climate. Human-caused methane is a potent greenhouse gas responsible for 25% of today’s global warming. These emissions also rob mineral owners and local, state, and federal governments of valuable royalties and revenues that are needlessly wasted when they could be funding schools and public services. Gas that stays in the pipeline protects our climate and is money in the bank.

As acknowledged by the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, cutting methane waste from the oil and gas industry is the quickest and most effective way to slow the rate of climate change and protect communities from the worst effects of extreme weather. A study published in April 2022 in the journal Nature Communications found that if we captured the methane that escapes through leaks, flaring and intentional venting at U.S. oil and gas sites, we could meet half of the gas supply the U.S. committed to Europe this winter without increasing drilling activity.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s new draft proposal to control these emissions is a strong start: leak detection and repair at all wells; zero-emitting requirements for off-grid well equipment; a program to respond to super-emitter events through third-party monitoring; and methane monitoring of abandoned wells until closure.

The EPA’s final rule must go even further by requiring that gas associated with oil drilling is captured, a broader range of storage tanks are subject to emission standards, and communities have the data and technology necessary to participate in the super-emitter response program.

The people who live with oil and gas operations in their communities have done their part. Every day, they bear the burden of what it means to supply our country with energy. They need the EPA in their corner. And we all need the EPA in our corner. We are all affected by climate-damaging methane emissions from oil and gas, and we deserve the very best protections possible.

Gwen Lachelt has worked to reform oil and gas policies since 1988; she is a former two-term La Plata County commissioner and is the executive director of Western Leaders Network.