Some large producers seeing declines in methane emissions; industry applauds efforts while critics call for more than self-regulation

EPA data shows methane emissions reduction in six of 13 San Juan Basin facilities that reported data

Megan Petersen
Farmington Daily Times
The Four Corners area (red) was the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this map showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher). An industry-backed study says things are getting better.
  • Williams' Kutz Canyon Gas Plant and Milagro Cogeneration and Gas Plant saw the biggest changes in methane emission rates.
  • San Juan Generating Station emissions expected to decrease 'drastically' in coming years.
  • Large emitters have been reporting emissions data to the Environmental Protection Agency since 2010.

FARMINGTON — An industry-backed report says efforts made by individual oil and gas companies have shown progress in reducing methane emissions in the country’s most productive basins, but critics question the report and say self-regulation is still not enough to address methane emissions concerns.

Energy In Depth — an education, outreach and research arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America — found through analyzing data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program that “methane emissions from the most productive shale basins in the country have fallen considerably in the past six years,” according to the Dec. 20 report.

In San Juan Basin, methane emissions have decreased by 47 percent since 2011, according to the report. Of the 13 San Juan Basin facilities that reported data to the EPA between 2011 and 2016, seven facilities saw increases in methane emissions, and six facilities saw decreases, according to EPA’s data. 

The most significant changes in methane emissions came from two Williams Field Services facilities — Kutz Canyon Gas Plant and Milagro Cogeneration and Gas Plant

Kutz cut methane emissions by approximately 93 percent, putting out 72,296 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2011 and 5,014 metric tons in 2016, according to EPA data. Milagro, on the other hand, increased methane emissions by 95.8 percent, with 315 metric tons emitted in 2011 and 7,559 metric tons in 2016.

Both facilities, however, saw decreases in total greenhouse gas emissions, with a 29 percent decrease at Milagro and a 35 percent decrease at Kutz, according to EPA data. 

Williams spokesman Keith Isbell said in an email to The Daily Times that Kutz’s reductions in both greenhouse gas and methane emissions are “a result of reduced emissions from the plant’s centrifugal compressors” between 2011 and 2016.

Isbell said the increases in Milagro were a result of maintenance activity — including the decommission of two of the plant’s co-generation units in 2016 — that led to “an increase in the volume of natural gas blow down (when) natural gas is vented from the facility so that work may be conducted safely without the potential for ignition.” 

Isbell also said that emissions rates were likely higher in the first years of reporting to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, as the EPA allowed facilities to use best available monitoring methods between 2011 and 2014 to afford “time to install permanent measurement instrumentation in their processes or alternately locate portable measurement devices to use.” 

“In addition to collecting actual measurements instead of estimated values, companies’ data collection methods and processes also improved with time as their data collection programs matured,” Isbell said. “Part of the (best available monitoring method) process involved some level of analysis by companies based on the best data available. Our retrospective analysis tells us now that methane emissions at Milagro in 2011 and 2012 were probably higher than those originally reported, more similar to those reported in 2013.” 

Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department Secretary Ken McQueen told lawmakers in November that there was “a very high compliance level” from active in following the rules to track volumes of methane gas intentionally released through venting and flaring, the Associated Press reported. 

San Juan Generating Station saw the smallest percentage change in methane emission rates over the past five years, decreasing by 4 percent between 2011 and 2016, according to EPA data. Dan Ware, spokesman for the plant's majority owner PNM, said the decrease is likely because of variability in coal quality and in the combustion process based on mechanical conditions at the coal-fired power plant. 

“Overall, methane emissions from the plant look like a big number — 32,000 to 33,000 (metric tons) — but when you consider and look at the other numbers, like the greenhouse gas emissions — 10.7 million — the methane emissions are really very minuscule,” Ware said, adding that “the changes in emissions really reflect the variability in things like the chemical composition of the coal.” 

San Juan Generating Station was also among the four facilities that saw an increase in overall greenhouse gas emissions — including methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide — between 2011 and 2016. San Juan Generating Station saw an increase of 0.3 million metric tons in greenhouse gas emissions, according to EPA data. Ware said the increase can also be attributed to changes in capacity and the same variability in coal quality and mechanical conditions at the plant.

Ware said greenhouse gas and methane emission rates will “drastically” decrease in the coming years as two of the plant’s four units were shuttered in December and after steps were taken in 2017 to implement emissions reduction technology for the remaining two units, which are scheduled to retire by 2021 in PNM’s integrated resource plan

“With the shutdown of units 2 and 3, our estimation is we’ll have an overall greenhouse gas emission reduction by at least 40 percent, based on the 2016 emissions,” Ware said. 

PNM also anticipates a 60-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions between 2012 and 2030 across its state operations as it completes the integrated resource plan and relies more on renewable energy, Ware said. 

EID’s report also says other major basins in the U.S. are experiencing decreases in methane emissions, including in New Mexico. Methane emission rates in the Permian Basin have decreased 6.3 percent between 2011 and 2016, and the Appalachian Basin and the Williston Basin have seen 26 percent and 8.3 percent decreases, respectively, according to the report. 

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Robert McEntyre said the decreases have been an intentional effort by industry players to improve technology and techniques to reduce emissions. 

“These kinds of market-based solutions are clearly driving progress,” McEntyre said. 

Lori Goodman, treasurer for Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, said she’s skeptical of the EID’s report of decreasing methane emissions, citing a November 2017 report by the Environmental Defense Fund that says methane emissions are drastically higher than official reports

“The only thing that I could think for the decline would be that there’s less development going on right now, but at the same time, I’m looking at (the EDF) report that came out in November, and it tells a totally different story,” Goodman said, adding that “seeing is believing. I’ve been out there the last couple of days, and I don’t think so.” 

When it comes to regulation, Goodman said she doesn’t trust the industry to self-regulate appropriately – “not as of yet.” 

“They’re just trying to get as much done in the darkness with no regulations in place,” Goodman said, adding that she could see progress happening through independent emissions mitigation companies working closely with established production companies to implement new and advancing emissions reduction technology and techniques. 

Though environmental groups are calling for standard regulations for all companies to follow, McEntyre said the progress being made by industry players should be acknowledged in a contentious regulatory climate as the Donald Trump Administration has worked to delay a Bureau of Land Management methane emissions rule and as lawmakers and environmental groups defend what some see as a common-sense rule.

“The regulatory environment at times can be very prescriptive or there’s a one-size-fits-all approach that’s taken to all operators large and small,” McEntyre said. “I think what we’re seeing now is there are different ways that we can tackle this issue and many of those ways are working, and hopefully with initiatives like the Environmental Partnership, industry will have a greater opportunity to collaborate with each other and to share ideas and to share technology to help us see these emissions continue to slide down.”

Megan Petersen covers business and education for The Daily Times. Reach her at 505-546-4621 or