Methane forum attendees differ on 'hot spot'

James Fenton
From left, Robert Tohe, organizer for Dirty Fuels campaign, Sister Joan Brown, executive director for New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light and Mike Eisenfeld, staff organizer for San Juan Citizens Alliance, take part in a panel on methane held Tuesday at San Juan College in Farmington.

FARMINGTON — About 100 environmentalists, former legislators and interested people filled a meeting room in Henderson Hall at San Juan College on Tuesday evening to hear about scientists' efforts this year to pinpoint sources contributing to high levels of atmospheric methane recently detected over the Four Corners region.

The meeting was organized by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups and included a panel of area environmentalists, including Mike Eisenfeld of Durango, Colo.-based San Juan Citizens Alliance; Sister Joan Brown, executive director of Albuquerque-based New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light; Colleen Cooley of the Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment; and the Sierra Club's Robert Tohe.

Jonathan Thompson, a writer in Durango, Colo., was the featured speaker at the meeting. Thompson, who wrote a recent article on the scientists' study of fugitive methane in the region, said the report is expected to be released next spring.

A 2014 NASA study that used satellite imagery captured between 2003 and 2009 revealed a 2,500-square-mile "hot spot" of methane in the Four Corners area.

Scientists at a forum held at the college in April that included researchers from the University of Colorado, the University of Michigan, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA announced an effort to try to pin down sources of the methane that are contributing to the country's largest regional concentration of the greenhouse gas. The described a plan to use aircraft and vans outfitted with technical equipment designed to capture finer data than the October NASA report released this summer.

Members of the community on Tuesday listen as panelists discuss methane at San Juan College in Farmington.

An analysis of data collected on land and in the air is expected to be published in the spring, Thompson said.

Brown, a Franciscan nun, cited Pope Francis' encyclical letter released this summer. She said the faith, environmental and other communities have a common link in the obligation to address moral and ethical issues posed by challenges like climate change.

"It's about dialogue," Brown said.

Former state legislator Tom Taylor said the meeting was largely an exercise in confirming the biases of those who attended.

"These people believe what they believe. They look at the world through a different pair of glasses," Taylor said after the meeting. "They came into the room saying that it's the fault of oil and gas development so the only facts that they are going to consider are ones that conclude that it was (the oil and gas industry)."

Colleen Cooley, an outreach organizer for Diné CARE, gives a presentation on April 17 during a forum on methane at San Juan College in Farmington.

Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo Transitional Energy Company, said he was interested in hearing what the public had to say about the methane issue.

Zah said the Navajo Nation-owned company's charter states that 10 percent of revenues go toward exploring and implementing renewable energy sources. It also is a unique energy company in that it is owned by the Navajo people and has a vested stake in listening to the public on important issues related to energy and the community's well-being, he said.

"We have a  responsibility to listen to some of the concerns the community might have," Zah said at the meeting. "Real solutions are going to require having everyone at the table, whether it's coal, oil and gas, methane, carbon dioxide or other environmental issues. Understanding the perspective of all people involved is important."

This summer, the Obama administration proposed cutting methane emissions from all U.S. oil and gas production by nearly half over the next decade. The effort to address climate change seeks to reduce methane from oil and gas drilling by 40 to 45 percent by 2025 compared to 2012 levels.

Natural gas is 90 percent methane, which is a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period, though not as potent over longer periods of time. New Mexico is the second leading producer of natural gas in the U.S.

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