Report: San Juan Basin 1st in per capita methane

James Fenton
A flaring stack is pictured Jan. 8 near Lybrook.

FARMINGTON — The San Juan Basin was ranked first in the U.S. for per capita methane pollution, according to a Center for American Progress report released today.

Called "The Who’s Who of Methane Pollution in the Onshore Oil and Gas Production Sector," the report looked at which onshore operations were responsible for the most methane emissions and where in the U.S. methane pollution is highest.

With 227 metric tons of methane emissions per well, the San Juan Basin took the No. 1 spot for per capita methane pollution in the U.S.

The San Juan Basin, which reaches into southwestern Colorado, ranked third in overall emissions at 5.2 million metric tons, according to the report. The Anadarko Basin in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas was first followed by the Gulf Coast Basin of Louisiana and Texas. The Permian Basin in southeastern New Mexico and western Texas ranked fourth.

Drawing from the most recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency methane emissions data from the oil and gas sector, the report concluded that the industry's onshore operations comprise the largest industrial source of methane pollution in the U.S. — releasing 33 percent of all methane emissions in 2014.

That added up to more than 48 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent emitted by the oil and gas sector in 2014, equal to "14 coal-fired power plants powered for one year," according to the report.

In a conference call today , Alison Cassady, the Center for American Progress's director of domestic energy policy, said she analyzed the most recent greenhouse gas data available from the EPA's Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program to produce the report's finding on which onshore oil and gas companies are responsible for the most methane emissions and which regions of the country experience the most methane pollution.

And, according to EPA data, the oil and gas industry is the largest industrial methane polluter, responsible for releasing 33 percent of all methane emissions in 2014.

"We believe these oil and gas companies can and should do better," Cassady said.

Of the 211 companies whose emissions data was collected by the EPA in 2014, just 11 were responsible for 49 percent of the methane emissions reported from onshore oil and gas production, according to the report.

ConocoPhillips — the state's largest natural gas producer with 1.3 million net acres of oil and gas leases and more than 10,000 active wells in the San Juan Basin — topped the list as the worst onshore offender. ExxonMobil, Chesapeake Energy, EOG Resources Inc. and BP America followed behind ConocoPhillips.

Davy Kong, a ConocoPhillips spokeswoman, said in an email that cutting emissions are a priority. In 2015, Kong said the company reported a 26 percent reduction in carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in the San Juan Basin relative to the 2014 data.

"We work to capture even small releases of natural gas, and methane emission reduction is a crucial aspect of our well management principles," Kong said.

A majority of the company's emissions reductions, she added, have resulted from voluntary improvements to the company's San Juan Basin assets such as a company program to replace all high-bleed pneumatic devices across existing well operations. Kong said those were completed this month.

Don Schreiber, a rancher who took part in the call, said 122 ConocoPhillips wells populate or surround his 480-acre Gobernador ranch.

Located 20 miles south of the Colorado state line, Schreiber said that rules put in place in Colorado to regulate methane emissions have been successful in protecting air quality and production for operators.

"To misquote Sarah Palin, I can see Colorado from my ranch, so why are we not allowed to enjoy protections (like Colorado's)?" he asked.

Last year, in an effort to address the problem of climate change, the Obama administration proposed cutting methane emissions from all U.S. oil and gas production by nearly half over the next 10 years. Natural gas is 90 percent methane, which is a climate-warming pollutant 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period, although methane doesn't stay in the atmosphere as long.

Newly finalized methane rules from the U.S. Environment Protection Agency and pending rules for public and Indian lands by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management seek to reduce methane from oil and gas drilling by 40 to 45 percent by 2025 compared to 2012 levels.

Those rules only cover new and modified wells and Cassady said she would like to see existing facilities included. She said there are many more existing wells.

"That's 75 percent of the wells that remain unregulated at the federal level," she said. "We need to ensure that existing sources have strong regulations as well."

Schreiber, who has appeared in an environmentalist group's ad against methane waste, said the number of wells — and the emissions of methane they represent — make his ranch "Ground Zero" for methane pollution. He said the EPA and BLM rules are "commonsense" and their implementation are akin to the implementation of seat belt laws in the late 1960s.

"Conoco and the oil and gas companies are making a profit at the expense of families like mine, and at the expense of taxpayers across the country," he said. "When we realize what seat belts meant to the auto industry, that's the way we'll look back at this."

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