BLM methane rule a welcome tool

Gwen Lachelt and Katee McClure
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As local elected officials representing San Juan Basin communities, we welcome the news that the Department of Interior has finalized new rules to cut natural gas, also called methane, waste. This rule is good for the Four Corners and will protect public health, keep our skies blue, and bolster our local economy.

In August 2016, NASA released a study highlighting how and where industrial methane emissions are making their way into the San Juan Basin’s air. This study followed up on NASA’s discovery just two years earlier of a methane cloud the size of Delaware hovering over the basin. Some pointed to natural coal seeps as the culprit, others pointed to methane venting at coal mines, and some said it was waste coming from venting, flaring, and leaks within the oil and gas industry.

In this latest report, NASA found more than 250 sources of methane pollution, a significant portion of which originates from the oil and gas industry including natural gas “facilities, storage tanks, pipeline leaks, and well pads.”

However, just 10 percent of these sources contribute more than 50 percent of all the emissions in the Basin and to the methane cloud over the region. These sites, known as “super emitters”, have been well documented in other studies on oil and gas fields. The largest such emitter in the NASA report was a gas-processing facility near the Durango airport.

In many ways, NASA’s findings come as no surprise. According to the most-recent, self-reported emissions data, oil and gas sources account for approximately 80 percent of methane pollution in the San Juan Basin. And the Center for American Progress found more emissions per-well in the San Juan Basin than anywhere else in the nation.

The good news is that the BLM has risen to the challenge. In a groundbreaking move, the BLM has adopted the first-ever national rule to address methane waste and pollution from both existing and future oil and gas operations on public and tribal lands.

Here’s why this rule is good economic sense. First, methane is the primary component of natural gas. By addressing methane emissions, we are reducing natural gas waste and increasing the volume of natural gas companies are able to bring to market.

That means more royalty revenue and severance tax for local, state, and tribal governments. That is more money that will go to our schools, public infrastructure such as roads and bridges, and mitigation efforts to offset the impacts of energy development.

Tackling this problem will also protect our health, because dangerous toxics such as benzene and ozone-forming pollutants that can trigger asthma attacks and worsen emphysema are released alongside methane emissions. Air pollution continues to be a regional challenge and the American Lung Association gave La Plata and San Juan counties low grades for high ozone levels.

We know this approach works. Two years ago, Colorado created a blueprint for action by adopting the nation’s first-ever air quality rules that tackle methane emissions from the oil  and gas industry. Today, the number of sites with methane leaks that need to be fixed in Colorado’s most heavily developed oil and gas field, the Niobrara, have been reduced by 75 percent.

This has also given rise to new jobs in Colorado’s methane mitigation industry, and New Mexico has only begun to tap the potential for new jobs in this field. The BLM rule has the potential to grow Colorado’s industry and help a burgeoning New Mexico industry to take off.

We all breathe the same air, which is why solutions that cut across state lines like the BLM natural gas waste rule are welcome news for the San Juan Basin.

Thanks to the BLM for taking action and thanks to leaders such as Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, Senators Michael Bennet, Tom Udall, and Martin Heinrich, and others for making this victory possible.

Gwen Lachelt is a La Plata County commissioner and Katee McClure is an Aztec city commissioner.