Guest Column: Enviros misrepresent oil and gas

Jeff Peace
Letters to the Editor

The recent commentary from Todd Leahy of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, NMWF, is the latest in what appears to be a coordinated campaign against the oil and gas industry, following similar recent comments from the San Juan Citizens Alliance and Bishop David Bailey in regard to drilling activity and methane leaks. The NMWF letter starts out complaining about the unprecedented pace of oil and gas development as did the letter from the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

Since 2009 less than 15 rigs per year have been active in the San Juan Basin and the annual average since 2011 has been less than 10 rigs.  So far in 2015 the active rig count is less than six rigs.  This is not what I call unprecedented activity.  Also, of the more than 20,000 active oil and gas wells in the San Juan Basin cited by the NMWF, most of them were drilled more than 30 years ago.

Mr. Leahy states the new methane rule “will help stop haphazard leasing and drilling of public lands driven solely by the interests of the oil and gas industry.”  Leasing and drilling on public lands is not driven solely by the oil and gas industry. Revenues from severance taxes and royalties provide billions of dollars to New Mexico and the federal government.  In 2013 these revenues provided more than 31 percent of the New Mexico general fund. The financial impact to local communities is also important. New Mexico and the Bureau of Land Management have a strong incentive and fiscal duty to approve leasing and drilling.

Mr. Leahy goes on to state how important wildlife corridors, hunting and sportsmen are to New Mexico.  Does he realize how many of these hunters and sportsmen work for the oil and gas industry?  Visit any oil and gas company office in this area and you will hear employees talking about their recent or upcoming hunts.  The reason so many areas are available to hunters in this area is the extensive network of roads leading to wells.  In regard to his claim of negative impacts to wildlife habitat, I suggest he take a look at the reclaimed pipeline rights-of-way and abandoned locations that have been seeded with grasses and shrubs, and see how often the wildlife visit these areas to graze.

Mr. Leahy finds fault with the BLM for approving leasing and drilling and accuses them of not following through with required environmental reviews.  The BLM issued a resource management plan in 2003 that addressed the drilling permits approved between 2006 and 2008 that he says avoided environmental review.  Due to the anticipated development of the Mancos Shale, the BLM is in the process of completing another resource management plan to evaluate the impacts of those 3,200 projected new wells.  The BLM is doing its job.

Mr. Leahy also stated, as did Bishop Bailey, the new proposed methane rule to reduce emissions will be very inexpensive. The Environmental Protection Agency is very good at overestimating benefits and underestimating the costs of their proposed rules.  No company needs a government agency to tell it how to save money.  The oil and gas companies in the San Juan Basin make money selling methane, not letting it leak into the atmosphere.  When I worked for BP one of my duties was to check our wells and equipment for methane leaks with an infrared camera. I found only two wells that showed leaks, and those leaks were promptly fixed.

Environmental groups are also blaming oil and gas operations for the high ozone levels in San Juan County, but the data do not support that claim.  From 2005 through 2008 there were more than 35 drilling rigs active, but the fourth highest eight-hour ozone average at the Navajo Dam air monitor, which has the highest ozone levels of the three air monitors in the county, dropped from 79 parts per billion in 2006 to 61 ppb in 2009.  After the drilling activity decreased to less than 15 rigs, the ozone level increased to 74 ppb in 2011.   Since the data show ozone levels in San Juan County declined when drilling activity was high and increased when drilling activity was low, I find it difficult to link ozone levels to oil and gas activity.

In case anyone has not noticed the oil and gas industry is hurting. The active rig count in the San Juan Basin is down to two rigs.  Many employees in San Juan County have lost their jobs and those who are still working are worried about their jobs.  The last thing they need is a weekly dose of exaggerated and unsubstantiated attacks on their industry.