Environmentalists, industry spar over gas emissions at Eddy County developments
Industry leaders challenge accuracy of claims by Earthworks that oil and gas developments are leaking dangerous chemicals into the air.
The growth of the oil and gas industry in Eddy County boosted New Mexico’s bottom line, and the economies of communities that host the development.
But some fear the consequence of further growth means benzene, ethylene and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) could be leaking in gas for into the air, contributing to global warming and potentially impacting the health of nearby residents.
In the Permian Basin region of West Texas and southeast New Mexico, July data from the Clean Air Task Force showed VOC pollution increased six times, while benzene emissions – a product of natural gas – grew 68 times since 2011.
A small group of researchers from Washington D.C.-based Earthworks set out into the oilfields in the Loving and southern Carlsbad area to search out potential leaks at natural gas plants and drilling operations, hoping to identify where the pollution was coming from.
They used a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera, to film the sites.
The camera was calibrated to pick up VOCs being emitted into the air and invisible to the naked eye. VOCs, if breathed in, can cause cancer, nausea and even death, per the Centers for Disease Control.
Through the camera’s viewfinder, the chemicals appeared as grey smoke.
A temperature reader on the camera showed readings of up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit at the base of flare stacks and other developments, then cooled to the ambient air temperature – about 70 degrees – while panning across the alleged cloud of VOCs emanated from the potential leak.
This proved, Earthworks officials said, that the FLIR cameras are not simply picking up heat.
When a significant leak is identified, the organization files a complaint with the New Mexico Environment Department.
Thirteen such complaints were filed in southeast New Mexico this year.
Nathalie Eddy, oil and gas field advocate for Colorado and New Mexico, said the imaging is essential to document the problem and mitigate the effects of pollution.
But she said the State of New Mexico is much slower to reply than other states such as Colorado.
“It demonstrates that we're physically here,” she said. “We do everything we can to document. Usually, we get with inspectors to see if there’s anything that can be done. Here, no one responds.”
Thermographer Sharon Wilson, who operated the camera during the recent tour, alleged she found multiple leaks at developments just south of Loving.
Wilson was first certified to operate the camera, an industry standard for leak inspections, in 2014 by the national Infrared Training Center based in New Hampshire.
She said she’s conducted “well over” 1,000 investigations using the technology.
“Nobody actually measures how much methane goes into the air,” she said. “I’ve been all over the country, and the Permian Basin is by far the worst.”
The cameras cannot detect exactly what chemical is present in the air, nor the rate of emission.
'They don't know what they're looking at'
It’s a flaw Robert McEntyre, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association said reduces Earthworks’s efforts to nothing more than scare tactics.
“They don’t actually know what they’re looking at,” he said. “This is just a part of a campaign of fear to put the industry out of business. The only final destination they’re stepping toward is the end of oil and gas.”
McEntyre said Earthworks does not represent the desires of Carlsbad, nor the needs of New Mexico, and aims to shut down one of the state’s most important economic drivers: oil and gas.
“It should be concerning when organizations like Earthworks come into a town like Carlsbad, and essentially try to put people out of work. They have an agenda that is much different than Carlsbad. Most people in Carlsbad would like to see more economic growth, not less.”
Venting excess natural gas, or burning it via flaring, is never ideal, McEntyre said, but is an important measure to stabilize well pressure.
He said the process of flaring is a temporary part of operations.
“Flare stacks are not a permanent part of the process. It’s essentially a pressure release,” he said. “No one wants to emit more than they should. Every operator wants to minimize emissions to as low as possible.”
Steve Everly, spokesman for Texans for Natural Gas said the organization, and others like it, are out to impede oil and gas development without scientific fact, relying on emotional appeals and innuendo.
Such acts can even waste taxpayer money, by forcing the government to spend money on an imaginary problem.
“Earthworks wants to shut down the oil and gas industry and will use any means possible to achieve those extreme ends,” Everly said. “Their goal is to frighten the public, pure and simple. This unscientific fearmongering has been tried repeatedly here in Texas, and taxpayers have been forced to pay for regulators to investigate problems that don’t exist.
“The tax revenue generated by oil and gas production in New Mexico would be much better spent on education and other public services.”
Reductions in emissions could mean more funding for New Mexico public schools and other government-funded services, said U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM).
Udall said up to $2 million per year worth of methane is wasted due to undue emissions and leaks.
He said that money would go to support New Mexicans, if the gas could be captured and put to market.
He criticized the Bureau of Land Management's recent decision to rollback several federal regulations known as the Venting and Flaring rule designed to reduce methane emissions.
With the limit in federal oversight, Udall called on the industry itself to be responsible regarding emissions, critical of the policies enacted under the administration of President Donald Trump and the Department of the Interior.
"I’ve worked hard for a federal rule that limits the leaking and flaring of methane from oil and gas operations on federal lands. We must end the waste of taxpayer-owned natural gas as it provides badly needed revenue to cash-strapped states like New Mexico for public education and other essential services, all while reducing pollution," Udall said.
"Efforts to limit the waste of natural gas are simply good policy – good for taxpayers, good for the economy, and good for the environment."
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.