Environmentalists want stronger methane rule

James Fenton

HERMOSA, Colo. — Environmentalists on Tuesday joined local activists to express support for proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations on oil and gas industry atmospheric methane emissions.

A work over rig stands on April 10, 2015, at a natural gas well site in San Juan County.

Alex Renirie and Camilla Feibelman of the Sierra Club held a conference call with Victoria Gutierrez of Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment and Tweeti Blancett, a sixth-generation New Mexico rancher, owner of The Step Back Inn in Aztec and former state legislator.

Feibelman said the four were using the call to announce that a coalition of environmentalists in New Mexico had collected 25,000 public comments in favor of the Obama administration's proposed rule even as President Barack Obama was in Paris talking with the leaders of other nations about ways of slowing climate change.

However, Renirie said the proposed EPA rules on methane don't go far enough. For example, the proposed rule lacks specific language on flaring to make it "an option of last resort," she said.

"This rule limits emissions only on newly installed or modified equipment in the oil and gas industry, but not on distribution," she said.

Renirie also said that the proposed rule should include tighter restrictions such as more frequent leak detection and repair, or LDAR, inspections. She would also like to see liquid-unloading events, storage tanks and compressors at wellheads included.

Oil and natural gas producers in New Mexico emitted more than 250,000 metric tons of methane in 2013, she said. According to the EPA, the oil and gas industry leads all U.S industries in methane emissions.

Gutierrez said people on the Navajo Nation in areas like Counselor, Chaco and Nageezi are suffering health and environmental impacts from fugitive methane. Families in communities on the nation are bearing the brunt of the emissions, she said.

"You have kids having strokes in the area," she said. "The smell is so bad they put plastic on their windows to keep the smell out. It smells like rotten eggs."

She attributed her son's respiratory illnesses and skin rashes to oil and gas operations near her home.

In August, the EPA proposed placing limits on methane pollution as part of the Obama administration's efforts to combat climate change. Obama has set a goal of cutting methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels over the next decade.

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, Feibelman said. New Mexico is the second-leading producer of natural gas in the U.S.

Last year, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other scientists published a report that showed a "hot spot" of atmospheric methane over 2,500 square miles of the Four Corners region, which is the highest concentration of methane in the U.S. Results from a follow-up study are expected next year.

Blancett lives and works in Aztec, and has been battling big oil for more than 15 years, she said.

The problem became so extreme, she said, that in 2010, an oil and gas company opted to buy her "polluted" ranch land rather than pay to clean it up, she said.

"I don't oppose oil and gas drilling. I don't oppose rendering the resource on federal lands for the American public," Blancett said. "But what I do oppose is the federal government entities not enforcing the regulations to keep the other resources — our air, water and the people — safe."

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