A former La Plata County commissioner and environmental conservationist said the U.S. Senate's vote last month to reinstate Obama-era regulations on methane emissions is a step in the right direction to reducing the so-called methane "hot spot" that hangs over the Four Corners.
In a 52-42 bipartisan vote, the Senate voted to undo the Trump administration’s repeal of safeguards established by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. The resolution, introduced under the Congressional Review Act, will be voted on by the U.S. House in the coming weeks.
The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to reverse federal rules enacted in the last days of a previous presidential administration in an expedited manner that only requires a simple majority.
Southwest Colorado is part of an area within the Four Corners that has long sat beneath a concentrated cloud of methane, a natural gas that is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In 2014, a NASA satellite image of atmospheric methane concentrations over the continental U.S. revealed a high concentration of methane emanating from the Four Corners.
“We had long suspected that we had a huge methane emissions problem,” said Gwen Lachelt, former La Plata County commissioner. “The NASA study that came out in 2014 that showed the methane cloud over our region just proved that we were correct.”
A subsequent study from NASA revealed the hot spot was largely a result of leaks at gas facilities.
“(The study) ultimately identified 250 super emitters amongst a vast oil and gas complex,” Lachelt said. “I'm talking (about) tens of thousands of oil and gas wells in between northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado.”
Lachelt served as a La Plata County commissioner from 2013 until January of this year. She founded and is currently the executive director of the Western Leaders Network, a nonprofit consisting of 450 local and tribal officials in the Interior West who support conservation policies.
During her time as county commissioner, Lachelt worked on methane regulations at the state and the federal level, providing comments to Congress and testifying before a congressional committee on methane regulations.
Colorado introduced the first state-level regulations on methane emissions and pollution in the oil and gas industry in 2014. But methane emissions, like air pollution, doesn’t stop at state lines, meaning less restrictive measures in a neighboring state can still adversely impact states with stricter regulations.
In 2016, the Obama administration adopted regulations similar to those passed by Colorado, that applied on a federal level, after a bipartisan vote in Congress.
“We just thought that was a game changer to effectively address our methane cloud,” Lachelt said of the first federal regulations of methane emissions.
Lachelt was present for the vote in Congress. She visited the offices of senators who were considered swing votes to discuss the new rule, including John McCain, whom she had a chance encounter with. McCain was one of the few Republicans who ended up voting for the federal regulations.
“I can't take all the credit by any stretch of the imagination, but we've come a long way and there's still a long way to go,” Lachelt said. “Oil and gas industry is an extremely powerful industry that has resisted reform, or any regulation at all, for a really, really long time.”
Methane emissions, especially on federal lands, are an economic and taxpayer issue, not to mention an environmental and public health issue, Lachelt said. She likened methane leaks in oil and gas facilities to running faucets.
“I've said this for years and years and years: Methane or natural gas that stays in the pipeline is money in the bank,” Lachelt said. “You're just throwing money out the door. We're just wasting it like you'd be wasting water like nobody's business if you left all your taps on.”
Congress’ action on reinstating the EPA’s safeguards on methane emissions is important, but it is not the end of the fight against methane emissions. Lachelt said she would also like to see emissions regulations reinstated and strengthened by the Bureau of Land Management, as well as regulations at the state and local levels.
On Thursday, the New Mexico Environment Department proposed new rules that would require oil and gas companies to detect and repair leaks, including methane leaks, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. The department estimates the rule will reduce over 800 million pounds of methane annually.
The Navajo Nation is also beginning to introduce regulations on tribal lands, said Jon Goldstein, the Environmental Defense Fund’s director of regulatory and legislative affairs. It is the first tribe to regulate methane and air pollution from oil and gas wells. He added there is much room to improve and strengthen regulations at the state level in Utah.
Reinstating EPA safeguards will encourage more regulations at the state and local levels, such as those seen in Colorado, Goldstein said.
“The return to sensible federal standards is incredibly important so we have a national floor, and the continued leadership of states and tribes that can raise the bar even further,” Goldstein said. “I think that's exactly what you're seeing in the Four Corners, which is really exciting.”
Grace George is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.