The San Juan Basin in Southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico is home to more than 30,000 gas wells, some active, others inactive. As a major producer of natural gas in the early 2000s, it has also been identified as a major producer of methane gas emissions.
In fact, satellite images taken between 2003 and 2009 showed a 2,500-square-mile methane hot spot over the basin. A study later found 250 different sites that accounted for over 50% of the emissions, all related to energy extraction methods. Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory used thermal camera imaging in 2016 show how natural gas spews from industry facilities in the basin. And more recently, the Environmental Protection Agency and New Mexico Environment Department reported 61 leaks of methane and volatile organic compounds from a variety of oil and gas equipment, including storage tanks and flares, in the San Juan Basin.
But as production wanes, what should happen to those old or abandoned wells still leaking methane?
Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper are leading the call for stronger protective methane standards for the oil and gas industry.
In a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Sept. 23, Bennet, Hickenlooper and other Colorado representatives urged the extension of Obama-era protections to older wells. According to data released by the EPA in 2018, more than 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells emitted 281 kilotons of methane, equivalent to consuming about 16 million barrels of crude oil.
“Methane is the main component of natural gas and a climate pollutant many times more potent than carbon dioxide, especially in the near-term,” Bennet and other lawmakers wrote in a statement. “Deploying all technically feasible measures now could cut methane pollution in half by 2030, slowing climate change and avoiding up to a quarter degree of warming by midcentury. To have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, we must seize every opportunity to reduce these emissions in the near term.”
In 2016, a two-year study released by NASA confirmed that energy extraction practices were responsible for the methane hot spot found over the Four Corners. A previous argument made the case that the emissions were from natural steeps, but it was found that most of them were related to industrial facilities.
This discovery led to demands for legislation and regulations to reduce emissions. In 2016, the Obama administration adopted regulations similar to those originally passed by Colorado. Colorado was the first state to pass state-level regulations on methane emissions and pollution in the oil and gas sectors. The Trump administration rolled them back but they were restored in May 2021 by a bipartisan vote in Congress.
While the lawmakers are satisfied with the restoration of the regulations, they wrote that the issue of older wells has been ignored. According to the letter, marginal or low-production wells leak at a similar rate as active wells, even though they are exempt from the regulations.
A 2021 study conducted by McGill University found that the annual methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells have been underestimated. U.S. estimates are about 20% below actual levels, according to the study.
“These wells represent a majority of the nation’s fleet, just a small percentage of oil and gas production, and about half of the methane emissions from the industry,” Bennet and others wrote in the letter. “We urge EPA to eliminate the low-production well exemption and ensure these wells are subject to rigorous leak-detection and repair requirements.”
In 2020, according to state data, there were 17,196 inactive wells, producing less than one barrel of oil each day.
Some of the other measures the letter outlines include frequent traditional and advanced monitoring; subjecting all wells to leak-detection and repair requirements; eliminating the practice of routine flaring; and preventing abandoned wells.
Gwen Lachelt, a former La Plata County commissioner, is executive director of the Western Leaders Network, a nonprofit comprising over 450 officials who support conservation policies.
Having seen the public health effects it has had on people in Durango and the surrounding area, specifically with the region consistently receiving a low grade by the American Lung Association because of ozone, Lachelt is happy legislators are focusing on more ways to reduce methane emissions than just focusing on oil and gas facilities.
“Orphaned and abandoned wells are a huge problem,” she said. “We’ve got to include cleanup of those wells with this big focus, and there are a few bills out there, like Sen. Bennet’s bill and Sen. Lujan’s bill. They would all address the old and abandoned wells. You can’t say that we are going to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas facilities and then leave out what could be tens of thousands, if not more, abandoned wells.”
Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said Colorado’s specific statewide regulations were effective. But he doesn’t believe nationwide regulations and mandates are beneficial.
“Hard and heavy top-down mandates only serve to divide and frustrate people, and may not produce beneficial outcomes,” Haley told The Durango Herald. “Every state and every basin faces different challenges where one size doesn’t fit all.”
The San Juan Basin is an example of a basin that is affected by the activities of different states, and it is home to the highest concentration of methane pollution in the U.S.
Bordering New Mexico and Colorado, each state has different laws and regulations regarding methane emissions. While Colorado is ahead of other states in regulations, New Mexico recently proposed tougher regulations on the oil and gas sectors.
New Mexico is ranked second in the U.S. for oil and gas production.
Christi Zeller, executive director of the La Plata County Energy Council, said varying state laws and regulations, like stricter methane rules in Colorado but laxer guidelines in New Mexico, do not have much of an impact on methane emissions in the San Juan Basin.
“The methane cloud over Durango has not been a matter of fact, any of the leakage. That’s the headline, but that’s not the truth,” Zeller said. “You cannot paint the U.S. emission regulations with one stroke nationwide when you can’t recognize different basins’ products.”
Zeller said La Plata County is capturing methane in the basin because it is the only product. She said the nationwide laws wouldn’t affect the emissions levels because they already follow Colorado’s stricter laws. However, most of the emissions come from New Mexico.
According to a study conducted by the EPA and New Mexico’s Environmental Department, the San Juan Basin’s leak rate was 3% in 2020. The Environmental Department said the leaks in the Permian and San Juan basins were “higher-than-expected leak rates” at the time the study was released.
“The emissions, which mostly result from equipment failures and unaddressed leaks, documented during the flyovers in the Permian and San Juan Basins are significantly higher than those reported by industry and are in line with those identified by non-governmental organizations and academia,” according to the news release issued in December 2020.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe also voluntarily captures and processes methane emissions from underground coal beds, eliminating 23,000 to 60,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year, according to the Colorado Carbon Fund.
Emelie Frojen has seen the impact emissions have had across the Four Corners. At San Juan Citizens Alliance, she advocates for nationwide environmental standards.
“Air pollution doesn’t stay within state lines, and what goes on between neighboring states also affects Colorado,” she said. “So we are actively engaged in state level and some federal level rule-making processes.”
Currently, there are more than 30,000 wells in the basin but some are inactive. The Bureau of Land Management and New Mexico laws require companies to secure bonds to comply with regulations, including plugging wells. Colorado launched a massive cleanup of abandoned wells throughout La Plata County in 2020.
Bennet introduced legislation in June to clean up orphaned wells while strengthening bonding requirements.
“Methane regulations mean a lot for our community in helping us fight climate change, with droughts and fires, just to name a few, and the Four Corners is particularly vulnerable to climate change and we have to be a leader on methane issues for the resilience of our community,” Frojen said.
Kelsey Carolan is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a senior graduating in December 2021 at American University in Washington, D.C.