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FARMINGTON — The news Monday that NASA scientists had mapped 250 sources associated with a "hot spot" of atmospheric methane over the Four Corners prompted environmentalists to conduct their own study Tuesday with the aid of an infrared camera.

Members of the Sierra Club, Earthworks, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment spent the better part of two days in Aztec and Bloomfield with the aim of photographing evidence of regional methane pollution that is odorless and otherwise invisible to the naked eye.

Alex Renirie, a Santa Fe-based organizer with the Sierra Club, said in a phone interview Friday that the study confirms what the environmental group says it already knows about methane pollution in the San Juan Basin.

Renirie said the group shot video using a thermal imaging infrared camera that allegedly resulted in black-and-white footage of methane fumes swirling around at a gas processing plant in Bloomfield. But she was more interested in methane leaks the group spotted coming from a well site east of Aztec.

"One piece of the well-site equipment had four leaks, and within a half-mile radius, we found five leaks on three pieces of equipment," Renirie said. "Somehow, the operators are getting away with not doing more."

Based on surveys conducted by researchers in April 2015, the NASA study says the sources of methane emissions were largely tied to natural gas storage tanks, wells, pipelines and processing plants. More than half of the recorded emissions came from just 10 percent of the sources, according to the study's findings.

Andrew Browning of the Consumer Energy Alliance, a Houston-based pro-energy group, described the NASA study as "limited and lopsided." Browning also argued that studies like NASA's harm local economies, including that of San Juan County, which already has besieged by a prolonged "bust" period brought on by a double whammy of record low prices for crude oil and natural gas on the commodities market, and existing and pending federal rules that would increase operations costs.

Browning said in the release that the NASA study was "a skewed snapshot" with too much emphasis placed on emissions sources along the New Mexico-Colorado border in the San Juan Basin while failing to consider other potential emitters besides oil and gas facilities across the 2,500-square-mile "hot spot."

"We want (researchers) to understand the implications of releasing one-sided data that could be to the detriment of families, households and local businesses in small towns ... of the Four Corners area," Browning said in the release. "These communities are already suffering the negative impacts of onerous regulations on the oil and gas industry — a key driver of the economy — and studies like this drive policy and regulations that affect energy development."

But Aztec City Commissioner Katee McClure said the potential for added revenue for operators, and for local and state coffers are possible with available technology designed to capture more natural gas before it is leaked or vented into the atmosphere.

“It is time for San Juan County to step up to the plate," McClure said. "The great thing about finding out that a significant amount (of) methane in the Four Corners is attributed to the oil and gas industry is that it is largely fixable. Not only will capturing the escaping methane be good for the environment, but it also has the potential to generate millions of dollars for New Mexico — money that this state is in dire need of."

Jason Libersky believes increasing the ability of the industry to capture more methane and sell it is good for both the environment and for the bottom line. He created a design for methane capture technology — called a VRU, or vapor recovery unit, manufactured by Twin Stars in Bloomfield — and the software to monitor and operate it remotely.

Libersky's Albuquerque-based company Quantigy can help reduce methane releases and help operators make more money at the same time, he said.

"Where NASA identified a problem, I see an opportunity for the oil and gas industry to increase revenue," Libersky said in a statement. "My company works with oil and gas operators in the San Juan Basin to reduce methane emissions. If we think a little outside the box, we can design smarter, more efficient operations that significantly reduce or even eliminate methane emissions."

McClure cited a pending federal rule that would push more operators through Libersky's doors if they aren't already interested in his product. Issued in February, the 298-page proposed rule by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management targets the escape of methane gas by the industry practices of venting and flaring, and from leaks of the pollutant during drilling operations and from oil and gas equipment.

The industry has expressed frustration over pending federal rules like the BLM's regulations that regulate hydraulic fracturing and methane emissions, arguing they are costly and unrealistic.

Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based industry advocacy group, said the industry has made strides of its own without tighter federal rules.

“There is a built-in economic incentive for producers to minimize emissions and capture as much methane as possible, since it’s the very product they sell,” Sgamma said. “Natural gas producers have reduced emissions 15 percent since 1990, even as production has increased 54 percent. ...The small amounts emitted at the well site are offset many times over by the huge greenhouse gas reductions natural gas delivers when used for electricity generation.”

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

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