Opponents of methane delay gather as lawmakers, industry reps disagree on Four Corners methane emissions

Environmental Defense Fund releases report on cost effects of methane problem, which NM Oil and Gas Associated says has significantly declined since 2011

Megan Petersen
Farmington Daily Times
A flaring stack is pictured near Riverview Golf Course on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 in Kirtland.
  • The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association says methane emissions have declined by 47 percent since 2011.
  • Environmental Defense Fund reports $27 million in New Mexico taxes are lost from methane emisions.
  • Grassroots movements of delay opponents grew to include 250 elected officials, religious leaders and stakeholders.

FARMINGTON — Discussions over a contentious rule regarding methane emissions flared up again over the past weeks as the Bureau of Land Management ended a public comment period on an 18-month delay of a rule meant to curb emissions from venting, flaring and leaks.

As the public comment period wrapped, industry representatives and lawmakers released different – and at times opposing – views and evidence about the status of methane emissions in the Four Corners region.

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association reports that the Four Corners region has seen a 47 percent decline in methane emissions since 2011, citing data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. The data shows methane emissions, which clocked in at 8.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2011, have declined to 4.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2016, according to a Nov. 2 press release from NMOGA.

“(The oil and gas) industry is proactively taking steps to reduce (methane emissions), and we’re proactively reducing venting and flaring, according to data provided by the state,” NMOGA Director of Communications Robert McEntyre said on Nov. 9.

However, Jon Goldstein of the Environmental Defense Fund, a bipartisan environmental nonprofit organization, said that the EPA data can only take into account large producers — sources that produce more than 25,000 tons per year — and the data collection model is not able to measure the effect of methane leakage.

Goldstein also said the data is skewed by a mega-producer that has made significant changes to its practices over the past few years.

“The lion’s share of the emissions reduction that’s being shown in that (EPA) inventory data comes from the improved practices of one producer — Conoco Philips went to some better and more modern practices in the San Juan Basin in terms of liquid unloading and pneumatic controllers,” Goldstein said in a news conference call on Nov. 9.

A flaring stack is pictured near Riverview Golf Course on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 in Kirtland.

Goldstein, along with Sen. Tom Udall, were quick to point out that some oil and gas producers in the Four Corners region and across the state are taking proactive steps towards reducing methane waste, but Udall said a hard line must be drawn to hold producers to a consistent standard.

“I think there is no doubt that there are very good, creative, strong companies that want to do the right thing,” Udall said during the Nov. 9 call. “They get out there and try to prevent leaks and do the kinds of things that we would expect flowing from seeing a report like (a report released by the EDF on Nov. 9), but the problem is if you don’t have a good, solid, commonsense regulation, others are going to do just the opposite or do nothing. Really what you’re doing with this rule is setting up a floor and then encouraging people in the industry to do a lot better.”

The EDF released a report detailing the cost effects of the methane waste problem, as well as emission sources and natural gas production rates by federal, private, state and tribal land. The report states the value of wasted natural gas adds up to $182 million dollars using current prices, but increases to $244 million using a reference price standard. Goldstein said taxes on the wasted gas could add up to $27 million — a price tag that could make a difference to the state’s financial slump, mainly benefitting public schools.

Critics from the industry cite the high cost to producers of implementing regulation while opposing the rule and supporting a delay, but Udall said that cost concerns are “just a talking point … (that) doesn’t hold up.”

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that if you put in place these prevention techniques, an additional industry grows — a mitigation industry — and you have jobs increase there, too,” Udall said. “This can all be done, and it can be done in a simple way, and that was the conclusion of federal agencies that studied this for quite a period of time and came up with a really common-sense regulation (in the BLM methane waste prevention rule).”

However, McEntyre said supporters of the rule are out of touch with the industry.

“Jon Goldstein and Sen. Udall don’t necessarily operate in the oil and gas industry, and from our vantage point, it doesn’t appear like they’re talking to very many operators about the problem they’re facing,” McEntyre said after the conference call on Nov. 9. “… (New Mexico citizens) should understand what the objective of some of these groups are. They have the objective to totally put industry out of business; we have the objective of creating energy while protecting the environment, and I think those numbers from the EPA — as uncomfortable as it may be for Jon Goldstein — underscore that and highlight that commitment.”

Grassroots movements have been active in the conversation, too.

Aztec City Commissioner Katee McClure, center, acting as a private citizen, talks with Bureau of Land Management, Farmington field manager Richard Fields, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017 at the Bureau of Land Management Farmington Field Office.

The public comment period for the delay closed on Nov. 6, a day that saw half a dozen people at the BLM Farmington field office to oppose the delay and support full implementation of the Obama Administration-era rule. More than 100 people gathered in Durango on Nov. 6 in opposition of the delay in a rally organized by Conservation Colorado, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and Indivisible Durango, according to a press release.

Several groups, including collectives of national and regional leaders, have stood against the delay, sending four different letters signed by more than 250 elected officials, religious leaders, environmental organization leaders and stakeholders from across the western U.S., according to information provided by the Smoot Tewes Group, a political and public relations consultant company associated with the grassroots movement.

A bicameral group of 81 lawmakers, led in part by Udall, have urged Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke “not to suspend or unlawfully delay implementation” of the methane rule.

Feedback from the public comment period was sent on to state and federal BLM officials, who will decide whether to continue implementing the rule or to go forward with the delay.

Megan Petersen covers business and education for The Daily Times. Reach her at 505-564-4621 or mpetersen@daily-times.com.