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COLUMNISTS

Lehmer: Create jobs to eliminate the methane hotspot

Gloria Lehmer
Farmington resident
Gloria Lehmer,

 

There’s a lot of talk in Washington right now about energy independence and creating jobs. Yet some members of Congress and the Trump Administration are signaling that when it comes to special interests, they’re willing to sacrifice both.

For example, President Trump recently signed an Executive Order “on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth.” But in reality, the order will do little, if anything, to help the economy in Farmington and San Juan County. It could actually hurt our community by allowing companies that drill on public lands to continue to waste natural gas that belongs to all of us.

That’s because his order instructs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review a set of new national oil and gas guidelines, known as the Bureau of Land Management’s Methane Waste Prevention Rule. These guidelines, designed to cut the waste of natural gas on public lands, will create good-paying local jobs and make sure New Mexicans see more money from the development of public resources. The new order to review the rule comes as a legislative effort to rescind it has stalled out in the Senate.

I have spent time researching this issue and advocating for the responsible development of oil and gas, especially on public lands. I attended meetings at San Juan College with hundreds of other people to give input to the BLM on the rule. I appreciate that the BLM took my comments into consideration when it was finalizing the rule.

We’ve all heard about the methane hot spot hanging over our area. But few know that this pollution is actually not hard to address. Researchers recently found that just 10 percent of oil and gas sites they examined in the area are contributing half of the hot spot’s emissions. Looking for these sites and fixing leaks — like BLM’s methane rule requires — could make a big difference. Having and enforcing a system for workers to check for, and repair, leaks on a regular basis is a good idea for many reasons. For one, it will help bring some stability to an otherwise turbulent part of our economy.

Continuously shifting commodity prices that are set on the global market can make it tough to be in the oil and gas business. When prices fall, companies stop drilling and lay off workers by the dozens or even hundreds. But leaks don’t care whether prices are low or high; a faulty valve doesn’t check the price of gas before failing.

Without BLM’s rule, New Mexicans will continue to see our gas be wasted, and taxpayers will lose out on royalties. Keeping the BLM rule in place will result in more gas in the pipeline, new jobs to check for leaks and increased revenues for taxpayers to the tune of millions. That’s a win–win–win.

I know industry has concerns with the rule, but my research tells me those concerns are mostly unwarranted. Chief among these are that the rule doesn’t help to expedite pipeline rights-of-way — that more pipelines are needed to avoid having to flare, or burn off gas instead of bringing it to the market — and that the BLM rule will result in many “marginal” wells to be shut in. Let’s consider those concerns.

First, the industry says it needs more pipelines. This, at first glance seems like a fair point, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Congress’ non-partisan auditors looked at the case of wasted gas on public lands and found that only an estimated 9 percent of requests to flare gas were due to a lack of infrastructure.

Second, the industry claims that the rule would force thousands of wells to be shut in prematurely, especially in areas like the San Juan Basin, with its many older wells that still produce a marginal amount of oil and gas. That’s just not likely. An analysis of the rule’s impact on the San Juan Basin found that compliance wouldn’t be a main factor in deciding whether to shut in wells, and that overall, the rule would have a net positive economic effect in the state.

Secretary Zinke has acknowledged that wasted energy from public lands is “troubling.” He has also said that “all of us as taxpayers and citizens have a stake in making sure we get value from our resources.” I couldn’t agree more with both sentiments.

Diversification of the local economy would enable us to weather the busts when commodity prices tumble, and should include the creation of new jobs in the oil and gas sector to find and fix methane leaks. We already know that these jobs are created by entrepreneurs who understand the need to keep gas in the pipeline and out of the air. The rule will just help that trend continue.

I hope Congress and Secretary Zinke will come to their senses and support keeping the waste prevention rule in place. If the rule is imperfect, let’s have a constructive conversation about how to make it better. That conversation can’t begin with empty and misleading promises of energy independence and job creation to those of us living with impacts of oil and gas.