Guest Commentary: Capture methane emissions

Gloria Lehmer
Editorial roundup

In April, scientists from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were in Farmington to present results of a study that identified the Four Corners “methane hotspot”—a large methane cloud above our area and the largest concentration of methane in the country! Further air sampling was done in a weeklong study in the area, with results expected this spring.

Meanwhile, business goes on as usual. The oil and gas industry is the leading industrial source of methane pollution. Every day, the industry emits and leaks (INTENTIONALLY WASTES) dangerous industrial pollutants, including methane and the carcinogen benzene into the air. Because of gaps in our federal and state emissions reporting systems, leaks of this invisible and dangerous pollutant can go undetected and unreported.

Methane is a greenhouse gas that can be more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Studies have confirmed associations between air pollution exposures and increasing numbers of adverse impacts, including decreased lung function, increased numbers of asthma and heart attacks, more frequent emergency department visits, additional hospital admissions, and increased deaths.

An aerial view of San Juan and neighboring counties reveals the waste and our local “drill, baby, drill” mentality, with over 20,000 active oil and gas wells. Although oil and gas prices are down, 230 new oil wells have been permitted along U.S. Highway 550 in the Lybrook area.  Burning flares and lights from drilling activity light up the dark sky.  At the “Land Farm” near Angel Peak, contaminated soil used in oil and gas extraction is dumped and treated with chemicals, adding more hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed the first-ever regulations for methane pollution, which would require the repair of leaks and eliminate venting and flaring. The Bureau of Land Management is proposing similar standards on federal and tribal lands, which is crucial, since much of the drilling occurs on these lands. The rules are important, but would only apply to new and modified gas wells, pipelines and other processing equipment and not to older, existing sources. By 2018, these existing sources are predicted to emit 80 percent of the methane emissions into our atmosphere!

Local elected officials and industry heads have voiced opposition of regulations, stating that it would be “uneconomical,” require “special, costly cameras,” and require twice-yearly inspection of all gas-producing wells that “will take half a day and cost $600.” Yet the estimated waste of natural gas on federal and tribal lands in New Mexico was worth more than $100 million in 2013!  In 2014, New Mexico’s oil and gas producers reported wasting more than 180,000 metric tons of methane, enough to heat more than 168,000 homes each year. This represents lost royalties to taxpayers. Since 2009, our state reportedly lost more than $42.7 million in revenue. Emissions from gas could be recaptured and brought to market with strong venting and flaring rules in place. While few companies have taken steps to operate responsibly, others have shown that voluntary programs do not work. In Colorado, with regulations in place, methane emissions have been reduced significantly, and production has increased.

Economists tell us that another oil and gas boom is not likely here. Other avenues for stimulating the economy must be aggressively pursued. Utilizing the methane-mitigation services already in existence in New Mexico could bolster this growing industry and provide good-paying jobs to our state. With our temperate climate and landscape, retail and recreational opportunities abound, as do opportunities for the creation of jobs related to cleaner sources of energy.

Don’t fall for the fear mongering you are hearing about job losses and the area becoming a ghost town. Listen to those who tell us that well-paying jobs can be created. The local economy can be fixed. Methane emissions are a deadly serious problem.