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BLM meeting over methane draws crowd

James Fenton
jfenton@daily-times.com

FARMINGTON – A public meeting over a proposed change to federal regulations governing methane leaks drew so many people to San Juan College on Tuesday that the meeting was halted after less than an hour when the fire marshal ordered the meeting moved to a larger space.

The meeting, organized by Bureau of Land Management officials, centered on the federal agency's push to update a 30-year-old rule that would more closely regulate the leaking of methane into the atmosphere. Supporters of the change cite the negative effects of the leaks on the environment, as well as the royalties that are being lost because the gas is not being captured and brought to market.

Community members crowd a performance hall at San Juan College in Farmington on Tuesday for a public meeting on a proposed change in federal regulations concerning natural gas production.

More than 600 people filled the college's performance hall, and approximately 100 of them signed up to speak at the meeting. The meeting drew a sizable number of oilfield workers who showed up to express their dislike for the rule and support for the local oil and gas industry.

Dozens of people in favor of the BLM rule dotted the crowd wearing red T-shirts that stated, “Methane pollution: our planet at risk.” But the clear majority of those in attendance was there to push back against the federal agency's aim to update the proposed rule over the oil and gas industry.

Explaining the need for the proposed rule, Amanda Leiter, BLM deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said oil and gas producers needed to do a better job of capturing natural gas.

"Between 2009 and 2014, the emissions of methane from federal and Indian leases accounted for about 375 billion cubic feet of natural gas emissions, which would be enough to supply 5 million households in this country for a year," Leiter said. "So that's a waste. That's not efficient operations. And the aim of the rule is to try to reduce that waste, to try to ensure that more of that natural gas is captured and sold and used in a productive way."

Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts was the first speaker to address the BLM officials, but he addressed the people who filled the auditorium first.

Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts speaks Tuesday during a public meeting at the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College in Farmington.

"If you are here in opposition to all or parts of the proposed regulations, would you please stand?" Roberts said to applause as the majority of the people in the room stood. "I'll get right to the point. In my opinion, the implementation of these proposed rules will kill revenue to state and federal governments, they will kill jobs at the local level in those communities that rely on the extractive industries for their economic health and it will result in the waste of precious natural resources."

Roberts said that one irony of the proposed rule is that it would cause a significant number of low-producing, or marginal, natural gas wells in the San Juan Basin to be plugged because complying with the federal rule in its current form would automatically render many of those wells unprofitable.

"That is waste in and of itself," Roberts told the BLM officials.

Bloomfield Mayor and San Juan County Commission Chairman Scott Eckstein told BLM officials that since 2009, San Juan County has lost 5,000 to 6,000 jobs, in part because of federal regulations and the collapse of crude oil prices.

Eckstein, whose comments also triggered applause throughout the auditorium, said the proposed rule would spread further economic pain across the area and was uniformly opposed by all four mayors in San Juan County, who jointly published a letter in November decrying the BLM's regulations.

"I don't want to see one more of our constituents out of their work, out of a job," Eckstein said. "I'm pretty passionate about this because I've seen the effects in this community. (The rule) is going to be a knockout vote to an already crippled community, a community that drives the economy of this state for the most part through the industry, and I think it's a terrible rule. I've met with the oil and gas industry. They're already working on this. I don't think they need the government to tell them what to do.  They care about their employees and the environment."

Eckstein said payments in the form of taxes and royalties from the oil and gas, and mining industries make up one-third of the state's general fund each year.

BLM Senior Adviser Tim Spisak and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Amanda Leiter listen Tuesday during a public meeting at the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College in Farmington.

But Camilla Feibelman of the Sierra Club said the oil and gas industry — and the state that relies on it — was in a "Kodak moment." She said workers need to be transitioned from fossil fuels-based industries to construction-, retrofitting- and renewable energy-based jobs.

"Don't let profits divide and conquer us," Feibelman said. "We have to remember the story of Kodak. Kodak, the grand company of photography, couldn't get its head around the fact that times were changing, that people wanted digital cameras. And guess what? They went out of business."

Feibelman said there already have been 2,000 jobs created in solar power in 2016 and cited that example as a way to keep people working.

At the morning session, Daniel Tso, a Navajo allottee heir and former Tribal Council delegate, told BLM officials that not enough had been done to alert people across the Navajo Nation about the meeting.

On the BLM website, the agenda for the morning session was listed only as "tribes," while "public" was listed for the afternoon session. A Daily Times reporter was asked to leave the morning session.

That confusion over the agenda at each of the sessions was only part of the problem the BLM needs to address, Tso said. The morning session drew only about 25 people, including three allottees and some officials from the Southern Ute tribe, he said, but none from the Navajo Nation. Not enough effort is being made by federal agencies like the BLM to spread the word about public meetings at the community and chapter house level, he said.

"We've tried to turn (the BLM's) ankles to say, 'Uncle' in that regard many times," Tso said during a break during the afternoon session.

Members of the public stand by the door Tuesday during a public meeting at the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College in Farmington.

Dozens of people spoke in favor of the proposed rule change, many of whom traveled from other parts of the state or neighboring Colorado. But voices in support of the industry drew louder applause. Jason Sandel, executive vice president of Aztec Well, an independent oilfield service company, received a standing ovation when he addressed the oil and gas workers in the hall.

"To begin, what I'd like to do is look out in the audience and recognize all the hard-working men and woman from the oil and gas industry who work day and night, in the heat and in the cold, to deliver fuel for America's future," Sandel said. "Their contribution is often (forgotten). The truth is that the BLM methane rule has the potential to put us and our employees out of business and on the unemployment line."

Sandel accused the agency of  choosing "winners and losers."

"(The BLM implements) the rules, selectively enforced based upon the owner of the land that a well is placed upon," Sandel said. "This gives rise to an unfair playing field between otherwise equal citizens. The result is one where our federal government is selecting the economic survival of one area over another."

The BLM will accept public comments on the proposed rule until April 8. To send comments, go to regulations.gov.

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