Tom Singer

Natural gas, the fuel many Americans use daily to cook meals and heat
our homes, is made mostly of methane. Natural gas also comes with a
“cleaner than coal” reputation when burned to generate electricity.

But too many leaks in the supply chain can quickly overwhelm this
advantage, as it has in the Four Corners region, and solutions are
desperately needed.

The Four Corners made national headlines last year when NASA, the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and top university
scientists detected a 2,500-square-mile methane “hot spot” so intense
that initial satellite readings were thought to be in error.

Sadly, the hot spot is real and covers more than twice the area of
Bernalillo County. While the study detected the hot spot, it did not
identify exactly where the methane is coming from.

Determining exactly where methane is released into the atmosphere is
important. But we already know that oil and gas operations are
responsible for the lion’s share of methane in the Four Corners. The
region hosts more than 20,000 active oil and gas wells, thousands of
miles of oil and gas pipelines, processing plants, and other
infrastructure.

According to EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, in which oil and
gas companies self-report their emissions, the industry accounts for
almost 90 percent of methane emissions in the Four Corners.

This leak-related methane waste from oil and gas robs the public of
millions of dollars in royalties that could be funding education, health
and public safety. Unburned methane is also a major climate pollutant
86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time span.

The Four Corners methane plume causes as much greenhouse gas
pollution in a year as seven to 13 coal-fired power plants or as much as
14 times the annual emissions of New Mexico’s 700,000 cars.

Methane emissions also contribute to serious ozone problems and
public health risks, including increased respiratory illnesses. This
waste also leads to more drilling, which puts stress on nearby
communities.

It’s important to learn more about where all this methane is coming
from. To follow up on their initial findings, NASA and NOAA scientists
are back in the field to better pinpoint sources of methane contributing
to the hot spot.

They’re looking at existing wells and new drilling, compressor
stations, natural gas processing plants, and sources outside the oil and
gas industry as well. The lead scientists for the new studies will
describe their work at a public forum to be held at San Juan College in
Farmington on Friday. We applaud this work.

However, ongoing research must not be an obstacle to addressing the
methane pollution and waste that the industry itself acknowledges it’s
causing in the region. Tools and techniques to clean up the Four Corners
methane plume are readily available and often cost-effective, but the
industry isn’t solving the problem on its own.

Voluntary programs to reduce methane leaks are not working: out of
over 475 oil and gas producers in New Mexico, only 10 participate in the
Environmental Protection Agency’s voluntary Natural Gas Star Program.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management
are moving ahead with a solution: rules to require the oil and gas
industry to remedy leaks in old equipment, use state-of-the-art
technologies in new operations and end sloppy practices.

These new rules will make sure that all oil and gas companies take
sensible action to reduce methane waste and pollution. They will ensure
New Mexico is paid the royalties that should be collected for energy
resources developed on our public lands.

Late last month, we met with officials at the White House and at the
Department of Interior to press the case for common-sense EPA and BLM
methane rules. We will continue fighting for these protections and help
enforce them on the ground when they take effect.

They will speed cleanup of the Four Corners hot spot, and we need them – now.

Also signed by Lori Goodman, interim director, Dinè CARE; and
Glenn Schiffbauer, executive director, Santa Fe Chapter NM Green Chamber
of Commerce.

 

Read more about our work to reduce methane emissions and waste on public lands here.

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