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Clearing the Four Corners methane cloud

New Mexico on path to create regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Living with oil and gas has brought pros and cons to residents around the San Juan Basin. Here, a large natural gas plant was erected next to the St. Mary’s Cemetery in Bloomfield, N.M.

Over the decades, the oil and gas industry has become close neighbors with residents of Southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico.

The energy industry has provided thousands of jobs and infused millions of dollars into the local economy. But it hasn’t come without a price.

Oil and gas drilling has drastically altered the landscape of the Four Corners – the industry has drilled its wells in some residents’ backyards, laid a web of pipeline spanning hundreds of miles and even erected a plant next to a historic Spanish cemetery in Bloomfield.

And now, more than ever, the environmental concerns associated with energy extraction have come to the forefront.

While Colorado has some of the most lauded oil and gas regulations for reducing methane emissions in the country, that doesn’t do much good for residents near the “Four Corners Methane Hot Spot” that crosses into New Mexico, where regulations have been all but nonexistent, officials say.

“The big overriding problem we have in our region is the Four Corners methane cloud,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt. “And the lion’s share of those emissions are coming out of oil and gas facilities in New Mexico.”

However, it appears Colorado’s neighbor to the south is about to make a big change.

In January, newly elected Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order that called for sweeping reform committing New Mexico to essential climate change action.

“Today marks an important shift in direction on climate policy in New Mexico,” Lujan Grisham said at the time. “We know all too well states cannot rely on the federal government right now to act responsibly and take the bold action scientists have made clear is needed to prevent calamitous climate change fallout in our lifetimes. It’s up to us.”

Part of Grisham’s climate change initiative was to develop statewide, enforceable regulations to reduce unnecessary methane emissions from oil and gas facilities, as well as prevent waste from new and existing sources.

“I was really excited when New Mexico announced it would adopt new standards to limit methane emissions,” Lachelt said. “Not only for the overall climate impact, but also because it can be instrumental in helping reduce the methane cloud we live under.”

The cloud we live in

In 2014, satellite images taken between 2003 and 2009 captured a 2,500-square-mile “hot spot” of methane releases over the Four Corners, which triggered an investigation by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to find more exact sources of methane emissions in the San Juan Basin.

The San Juan Basin is a natural gas and oil field that spans northern New Mexico and Southwest Colorado, and at one time, was one of the leading producers of natural gas in the country. Now, there are more than 30,000 wells in the basin.

New Mexico hopes to release a draft report about reducing methane emissions in December. The process has involved a wide range of stakeholders, including oil and gas companies and environmental groups, state officials say.

But production, which peaked in the 1990s, has waned since the mid-2000s, largely because of lower global prices and the discovery of energy fields where it is easier and cheaper to operate.

NASA’s study in 2016 confirmed suspicions that energy extraction practices were largely responsible for the methane hot spot.

“The argument that most of the emissions are from natural seeps, definitely, we can put that to rest,” Christian Frankenberg, a research scientist at NASA, said at the time. “Most of the plumes we observed were directly related to industrial facilities.”

Making progress

Also in 2014: Colorado became the first state in the country to put in place regulations to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations – rules that went further than the Environmental Protection Agency’s.

The measures called for in the regulations, for the most part, can be routine, such as fixing leaks or installing new equipment to better capture methane.

According to a 2018 state report, the regulations sparked oil and gas companies to repair about 73,000 methane leaks, and, as a result, the number of leaks went from 36,000 in 2015 to around 17,250 in 2017 – a reduction of more than 50%.

A NASA study found a “methane cloud” over the Four Corners, a result of oil and gas facilities. While Colorado has enacted regulations to clamp down on emissions, New Mexico is just beginning the process.

And since the regulations went into effect, natural gas production in Colorado has continued to increase. Natural gas and coalbed methane production went from about 1.6 billion million cubic feet in 2013 to nearly 1.9 billion MCF in 2018, despite coalbed methane production going down slightly.

Catching up

New Mexico’s methane emission regulations will come from two departments: the Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resource Department.

Adrienne Sandoval, the oil conservation director for the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resource Department, said a diverse range of stakeholders, from oil and gas companies to environmental groups, have been included to start initial talks on how best to reduce methane emissions in production fields.

In December, a culmination of those efforts, which included various public meetings across the state, is expected to result in a white paper that presents the technical findings.

Specific data about how much methane is leaked each year or how much oil and gas companies would make in profits from capturing the lost resource runs the gamut. The Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental group, for instance, says $40 million is lost for New Mexico in royalties and tax revenues.

But to make significant progress, New Mexico state officials want to steer clear of potential conflict and controversy, and home in on one simple question: What is the best way to stop methane from leaking?

“Right now, we’re focused on technical information,” said Sandra Ely, Environmental Protection Division director at the Environment Department. “That doesn’t mean people don’t have individual interests or it doesn’t get political, but it really is helpful to focus on the information out there and develop the best techniques possible.”

Beyond bust

San Juan County’s economy has been built on the energy industry and is particularly vulnerable to booms and busts. But local officials say the prolonged decline in the oil and gas industry in the region is now more than a temporary slump.

From 2012 to 2016, San Juan County’s population declined about 6,000 people, to a total population of about 122,500. The unemployment rate, too, has reached 6% as of 2019.

Aztec Mayor Victor Snover said San Juan County for years has relied on the oil and gas industry, and people are reluctant to speak out against it. But he said proposed methane regulations will benefit both the industry and the environment.

The fear of further job loss has resulted in many residents opposing any sort of new regulation that could potentially hamper the industry, said Victor Snover, the mayor of Aztec. But these new proposed methane rules, he said, will be a benefit to both industry and the environment.

“The analogy I like to use is: If the plumbing is leaking in your house, you should fix it,” Snover said. “It doesn’t make economic sense – or common sense – to allow a resource you’re paying for to go out into the ground.”

Ryan Flynn, executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, an industry advocate group, said the process, so far, has been productive, and that most oil and gas companies are for reducing methane emissions.

“This has nothing to do with political posturing,” Flynn said. “There’s really a desire to achieve positive environmental outcomes.”

And Flynn believes that is possible without pushing oil and gas out of the state.

“There needs to be action on climate change, and the industry is committed to tackling the issue and doing our part,” Flynn said. “And whenever there’s an opportunity for industry to couple responsible development ... and retain a product, we’re absolutely going to do it.”

States take the lead

Methane is one of the most dangerous greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. The EPA says methane accounts for just 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, yet has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide.

And, according to the EPA, one-third of those emissions come from oil and gas production.

“Our community is so heavy with the oil and gas industry, people are generally afraid to speak out against it,” Snover said. “But we have to force the industry to do better.”

Methane emission rules enacted by the EPA and Bureau of Land Management have been rolled back under the Trump administration, so it is incumbent on states to take the lead, said Commissioner Lachelt. Other states, such as Pennsylvania and North Dakota, have embarked on similar efforts.

“And there has to be an enforcement piece to this,” Lachelt said. “It would be great if limiting emissions could be based on voluntary measures, but if that were the case, we wouldn’t be living under a methane cloud.”


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