New rules proposed to curb methane emissions

Flaring in the Chaco Canyon area on June. 17, 2014. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

The Obama administration unveiled proposed new rules Friday for emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane across all federal and tribal lands, measures that would have a wide impact in New Mexico — the state with some of the highest concentrations of methane in the country, in part due to a 2,500-square-mile cloud that hangs invisible and odorless over the Four Corners region.

The proposed regulations would target all existing oil and gas wells, setting limits on how much gas can be released through flaring and venting, requiring technology that captures emissions and detects leaks and proposing emission sites to undergo at least biannual federal inspections.

The announcement Friday from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management said it was time “to modernize decades-old standards.” Current oil and gas regulations are more than 30 years out of date, the bureau said.

New Mexico’s Democratic congressional delegates, state officials and environmental advocates expressed support for the new rules Friday.

But Wally Drangmeister, vice president and director of communications for the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association, said the federal rules are likely to be cost-prohibitive for the industry. “Especially with the current low natural gas and oil prices, if these rules are too costly, a great number of existing oil and gas wells will have to be shut,” he said.

In a joint statement Friday morning, New Mexico’s U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham said the new rules are “an important step toward better management of public resources … and will help ensure New Mexicans have clear air generations into the future.”

They cited more than $100 million lost annually in leaked methane that could serve as a natural gas resource for the state. According to the Government Accountability Office, at least $43 million also has been lost in royalties that could have been collected from the natural gas released through venting, burning and the lack of leak controls.

“Every molecule of natural gas that is captured is a molecule that can be sold and put to good use [for the state],” the delegates said.

They also sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency asking it to consider more “rigorous” regulations, including leak detection and the inclusion of oversight for both new and existing sources of methane emissions.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and State Auditor Tim Keller also released statements of support for the federal rule, saying it would benefit New Mexico’s economy and public health.

Jon Goldstein, a senior policy manager for the Environmental Defense Fund, said, “The efforts we have seen this year to address methane emissions are long overdue and necessary. [Methane] is a big problem for New Mexicans, and I think these BLM rules are going to help address it.”

New Mexico accounts for almost a third of all natural gas lost due to venting and flaring: $101 million annually out of a total $330 million nationwide, Goldstein said, citing a study by analytics firm ICF International.

The new methane proposal follows several federal initiatives rolled out in 2015 under President Barack Obama’s mandate to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2025. Obama has called for curbing methane emissions by 40 percent to 45 percent within 10 years.

In August 2015, the EPA drafted restrictions for oil and gas production, but only for new wells and well updates — not for oil and gas facilities already in operation. The EPA rule received over 800,000 comments nationwide during the public comment period. Many said the rule was not aggressive enough.

Federal and tribal lands accounted for 109 billion cubic feet of methane emissions each year. New Mexico’s public lands accounted for a significant share of that, with 33.7 billion cubic feet in emissions, the highest of any state.

Methane emissions leak from New Mexico’s more than 60,000 oil and gas wells, almost 40,000 of which are on federal and tribal lands, according the Environmental Defense Fund.

Methane, which is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its initial climate impact, has been linked to severe asthma, premature death and reported strokes in children in communities with high levels of exposure.

This includes residents of San Juan County and the Navajo Nation.

Environmental groups including Western Environmental Law Center, the Sierra Club and Conservation Voters New Mexico also applauded the federal methane rule but said they would vet the 300-plus page proposal and submit comments to the federal agency in the coming months.

Drangmeister said a slow permitting process by the federal government is likely to inhibit, rather than encourage, methane capture.

“These regulations are trying to basically address a problem that is already being well addressed by the industry,” he said.

He said there were conflicts and redundancies between the BLM and EPA methane rules, and he said the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association planned to address these issues during the public comment period.

The public will have a 60-day period to address the proposed regulations and will have the opportunity to attend public forums to discuss their support or objections.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.

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