Complaint against oil and gas lease sale alleges 'lack' of waste prevention measures
A duo of national environmentalist groups submitted a formal complaint against the Bureau of Land Management’s planned September lease sale in southeast New Mexico, citing concerns over a perceived deficiency in policies to prevent waste and natural emissions.
In a letter to Jim Stovall, manager of the Pecos District – which oversees oil and gas leases in Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties – officials at the Washington D.C.-based Wilderness Society and the Colorado-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) urged the delay of the lease sale of parcels in Eddy and Chaves until stronger regulations were established.
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Chase Huntley, energy and climate change program director with the Washington D.C.-based Wilderness Society and Jon Goldstein, director of regulatory and legislative affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund wrote that they were “extremely concerned” about a “lack” of efforts to minimize waste on the proposed parcels.
The complaint pointed to revisions to the BLM’s 2016 Waste Prevention, Production Subject to Royalties and Resource Conservation Rule, also known as the Venting and Flaring Rule, that removed several requirements for oil and gas operators to report emissions to the BLM and adapt gas-capturing technology.
The rule was enacted in the final months of the administration of former-President Barrack Obama, and key portions were rescinded in 2018 after President Donald Trump took office and appointed former-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to office.
Alterations to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations and “insufficient” state regulations were also cited in the letter.
Goldstein called on the State of New Mexico to enact stronger requirements to reduce air pollution resulting from oil and gas operations.
“By allowing for tens of millions of dollars in more waste and hundreds of thousands of tons in increased pollution, the Bureau of Land Management is putting industry interests ahead of New Mexico communities and taxpayers,” Goldstein said.
“As BLM abdicates its responsibility to the people of New Mexico, the state must step up to the plate to reduce methane pollution and waste.”
Seventeen parcels were offered in the sale scheduled for Sept. 5, including 4,980 acres of federal minerals.
The proposed parcels, nominated by the oil and gas industry, are in Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties in New Mexico, along with Coal and Major counties in Oklahoma and Greeley County in Kansas.
Three parcels were offered in Eddy, at 1,531 acres with nine in Lea at 1,116 acres.
A single parcel in Chaves County was offered at 200 acres.
Industry debates emissions as production grows
The sale, and similar lease sales could add up to 6,000 new wells, records show, to the Carlsbad area.
The development could waste up to $16.5 million worth of natural gas during the next decade, read a news release from the Wilderness Society and EDF, and put 81,000 tons of pollution into the air each year.
Venting and flaring, often used to release natural gas to safely pressurize oil and gas facilities, wastes $275 million in natural gas per year across New Mexico, read an EDF report, with flaring alone accounting for $70 million worth of waste each year in the state.
If captured, the EDF estimated the gas could translate to $43 million per year in tax royalties to the State and that upstream oil and gas operations emit “at least” 1 million metric tons of methane per year and Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties in the Permian Basin region, account for more than 70 percent of the emissions.
Huntley said Tribal land is especially impacted by methane emissions, as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration recently discovered the U.S.’ largest methane cloud over the Four Corners Region of northwest New Mexico, the cultural center of the Navajo Nation.
“More methane is wasted from oil and gas production on federal and tribal lands in New Mexico than any other state in the nation, and yet the Bureau of Land Management continues to carelessly operate as if this fact does not exist,” he said.
“Moving ahead with lease sales in New Mexico that do not establish controls to limit methane waste is a bad deal for taxpayers, public health and the environment.”
A study published in May by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pointed to a 46 percent increase in Permian natural gas production since 2006 but reported “no significant increase” during that same time.
And 2018 data from the EPA suggested the Permian Basin and San Juan Basin in the Four Corners showed declines in emissions between 2016 and 2017.
Ryan Flynn, executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association pointed to "market-based" solutions, not government regulations, for the decrease.
“Absent any new regulation, oil and natural gas producers are leading the way in decreasing methane emissions,” Flynn said. “Falling methane emissions prove that we can increase production and protect the environment at the same time – it doesn’t have to be a choice."
Flynn said tracking and capturing methane is a top priority for the industry, and new programs and technologies will strengthen such efforts.
“We want to capture as much methane as possible," he said. "And it’s a priority for the oil and gas industry in New Mexico to continue to take the lead in reducing emissions through responsible operations and innovation."
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Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, email@example.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.