Oilman and environmentalist find common ground

James Fenton
Oil rig

FARMINGTON — For years, oil and gas operator Tom Mullins and environmentalist Mike Eisenfeld have stood on opposite sides of some contentious debates over fossil fuels in the Four Corners region.

Mullins is the CEO of Synergy Operating LLC, a Farmington independent oil and gas company, and the northwest vice president of the New Mexico Independent Petroleum Association.

Eisenfeld is the energy and climate programs manager for San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango-based environmental advocacy group.

The two Farmington men recently found themselves in a conversation at a press conference for stakeholders held to express concerns over the economic impacts posed by pending U.S. Bureau of Land Management oil and gas rules.

Mullins said the cumulative impact of federal regulatory changes such as the BLM's onshore orders and venting and flaring rule along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's methane rule that was finalized earlier this month put independent operators in the San Juan Basin at risk of shutting in wells or closing them.

The event drew all four San Juan County mayors along with city managers, school superintendents and other community leaders.

After the event, Mullins and Eisenfeld shook hands, and were sparked into discussion by apparent common ground with their mutual frustrations with the federal government.

"We've both got issues with the BLM," Eisenfeld said.

Eisenfeld said he strives to strike a balance between responsible energy development and the protection of environmental and public health.

A supporter of the "free market" philosophy, Mullins suggested the oil and gas industry would be better managed by the courts, not the federal government.

"You could have no regulation at all, which would be one way of having it," Mullins said. "If you have a free-litigation market situation, you could not have any regulators at all and the free market — if you're an out-of-compliance operator doing things poorly, damaging the public — entities that will sue you will bring you into compliance and take your money if you're not.

"And then you have entities that create regulation, and we put the burden on the regulator, forcing provisions to keep everything in line and then we both beat up the regulator by saying, 'Well, the regulator needs to be doing more, the regulator isn't interpreting this thing right' and we spend all of our time in that process," Mullins said.

Mullins said he believes both sides in the oil and gas regulatory debate agree that waste is a bad thing.

"I don't think anybody wants to waste anything," Mullins said. "When any regulation or any imposition requires people to do things that make no sense, I would think that that's where the common ground comes in and we say, 'Well, that doesn't make sense.' I'd rather see us do things in areas that make sense if you can't comply or there's a cost burden. Hopefully that makes a better community. But it's tough out there right now."

Eisenfeld said his gripe with the BLM is over its slow action. Mullins doesn't like its illogical and economically damaging rules.

"The reality here is that we need to put our thinking caps on," Eisenfeld said. "As long as there's that shut-off dialogue, we're going to get confrontational and abrasive ... With the BLM, we should be (saying) that all of us want better planning because they can't turn out any documents. They're not doing their analyses. Where I'm burned up is that (the BLM) announces their (Mancos-Gallup Resource Management Plan Amendment and Environmental Impact Statement) and it's delayed until 2018 and it's business as usual. And that's where the flaring's happening."

Mullins said the industry is being creative to reduce flaring times.

"The only flaring that I see going on (in northwest New Mexico) is ... of a quality of natural gas that's not salable," Mullins said. "Because when we stimulate a well with a 70-quality nitrogen fluid to conserve water usage ... a good percentage of that nitrogen's coming back. If you can't put it into the pipeline, then what do you do with it? So, from an engineer's standpoint, if you have no flaring, you use more water, but then the well won't flow back."

Eisenfeld does not make blanket condemnations, "To these guys' credit, they're using less water," he said. "It's a very visual thing for the public."

Eisenfeld said more substantive dialogue is needed in the debate over fossil fuel production in the San Juan Basin to create progress that satisfies all stakeholders.

"I respect what you do and what you say," Eisenfeld told Mullins. "I think that that's something that is missing in other communities. There is some understanding of what it all means that is lacking (elsewhere)."

Mullins said many oil and gas officials are leery of walking into a room to try to have a reasonable debate on the industry and the environment given the tone and tenor of many of the events where the two sides routinely clash and come away with little or no deeper understanding of the issues.

They joked that if they both hosted a forum for an open, substantive dialogue, the premise alone might dampen turn-out.

"I think we're both trying to do what's right," Mullins said.

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