BLM to hear comment on venting and flaring rule

James Fenton
Natural gas flares from a production site on Jan. 8 off U.S. Highway 550 near Lybrook.

FARMINGTON — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will hold a public forum at San Juan College on Tuesday to hear comment on the agency's proposed rule on oil and gas industry venting and flaring.

The forum, split into morning and afternoon sessions, will feature remarks by Jim Stovall, the BLM's New Mexico acting associate state director; Amanda Leiter, the BLM's deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management and Tim Spisak, the BLM's senior adviser. After opening remarks and an overview of the rule, each session will include a question-and-answer session.

The BLM's proposed rule targets the escape of methane gas from venting and flaring, processes used in oil and gas production, and from gas leaks during drilling operations and from well sites. The proposed update to a current rule is designed to cut in half the industry's methane emissions from operations on federal land.

It would require oil and gas producers to adopt current technologies, processes and equipment designed to limit the amount of flaring at oil wells on public and tribal lands, according to a Jan. 22 BLM press release.

The proposed rule would also require operators to periodically inspect their well facilities for leaks of gasses like methane and to replace out-of-date equipment that vents large quantities of gas into the air. Operators would also be required to limit venting from storage tanks and improve procedures to limit gas losses when removing liquids like oil and water from wells.

The rule also addresses the royalties lost on flared gas, according to the release.

The rule, which has not been revised by the federal government in 30 years, aims to reduce waste of U.S. natural gas supplies, address methane's contribution to climate change and deliver more revenue for federal taxpayers, tribes and states.

Although it doesn't stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, methane is a climate-warming pollutant 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period.

The loss of methane into the air by venting, flaring or leaking is also an economic issue.

On Friday, 40 representatives of state and local governments throughout New Mexico sent BLM Director Neil Kornze a letter of support for the rule.

They cited a recent report by the Western Values Project that found $42.7 million in royalty revenue since 2009 has gone uncollected because of lost natural gas on public lands.

"Our state sorely needs these royalties to support our public school system, which is already facing major challenges ensuring that our children are well prepared to succeed and that our educators and facilities are adequately supported," the officials said in the letter.

Kirtland Mayor and San Juan County Treasurer Mark Duncan used to work in the chemical plant at San Juan Generating Station.

Duncan said he believes the federal government's effort to update its rules will only damage oil and gas companies — especially the smaller independents that predominate in the San Juan Basin — with over-regulation.

Instead of ensuring the collection of more royalties on otherwise vented, flared or leaked natural gas, Duncan said he believes the industry will be economically crippled by the proposed rule and plug wells or shutter them entirely as a result.

"Oil and gas is huge to New Mexico, and the taxpayers will bear the burden when oil and gas companies leave," Duncan said. "The result will be municipalities dropping services like crazy or looking at raising taxes and that is not a thing to do in this economy."

Royalties and taxes from oil and gas production in New Mexico add up to about a third of the state's general fund.

But Donna House, a conservationist and botanist who has studied the industry's impacts on the Four Corners environment for decades, said she plans on going to the meeting Tuesday.

House lives in the Ohkay Owingeh territory in Rio Arriba County and said the environment and traditional industries are threatened when the energy industry doesn't effectively guard against damaging the land, air and water.

Though she said the federal government's look at the 30-year-old rule was overdue, she was glad to see an effort being made to enforce rules to regulate the industry.

"I applaud BLM for taking action to increase tribal revenues, and addressing the excess natural gas waste from flaring, venting and leaks," House said. "It is no secret that New Mexico is the epicenter of the methane problem. In 2014, NASA discovered a cloud of methane the size of Delaware floating over the San Juan Basin. We need our leaders to ensure that BLM finalizes a strong rule to end natural gas waste."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.

If you go

What: BLM public forum on royalty-free use of gas production, waste prevention and resource conservation

When: 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 16

Where: San Juan College, Henderson Fine Arts Building, Rooms 9008/9010, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

Cost: Free

More info: Call the BLM at 202-912-7035 or go to blm.gov