The amount of methane released into the atmosphere or burned in the Permian Basin has more than doubled since 2017, suggests a new report from an advisory panel assembled by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
At a time when a state oil and gas industry group points to federal data showing declining methane emissions overall, a report from the Methane Advisory Panel indicates more methane and carbon dioxide waste is being vented and burned than ever.
According to the report, venting and flaring accounts for about 30 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas production in the oil-rich Permian Basin, which spans West Texas and New Mexico. The report lays out comprehensive technical recommendations meant to guide environmental regulators as they craft a new methane rule involving everything from leaks in oil and gas storage tanks to pneumatic pumps.
If venting and flaring continue unmitigated, the resulting emissions would be roughly equivalent to continuing to operate the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station near Farmington, the report said.
Methane is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and venting and flaring account for a large portion of methane and carbon dioxide emissions.
“The oil and gas industry often likes to claim natural gas or methane is one of our main products … [but] tremendous and increasing levels of emissions, increasing levels of flaring, show how false that is,” said Jon Goldstein, director of regulatory and legislative affairs in the Rocky Mountain region for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Because oil is more profitable than natural gas, methane dredged up during the course of oil drilling is often treated as a waste product. It is either released into the atmosphere — vented — or burned, the report said.
The Methane Advisory Panel’s draft technical report includes information from environmentalists and the oil and gas industry that is sometimes contradictory, but there is no comment on the discrepancies. The panel did not require a consensus for information to be included.
For example, while the report says venting and flaring occurs because natural gas is treated as a waste product in oil drilling, it also says most venting and flaring occurs because there are no pipelines and other infrastructure in place to capture methane and sell it as natural gas.
Environmentalists are critical of that explanation.
“That’s like saying, ‘I don’t have a way to get my trash to the trash dump, so I’m just gonna dump my trash on my neighbors’ lawn,’ ” said Camilla Feibelman, director of the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter. “The associated costs of their wasteful approach are global climate change. … Industry needs to figure it out.”
The report also cites conflicting data on venting and flaring, at one point saying it has doubled since 2017 and in another section saying it has increased only slightly.
Regulators with the state Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department will sift through the conflicting information in the 301-page technical report, now open for public comment, when deliberating a pending methane reduction rule, which the governor has called for by executive order.
Tom Singer, a senior policy adviser for the Western Environmental Law Center, said the report is important because it is still the most comprehensive look at various sources of methane emissions in New Mexico from the oil and gas industry.
“It’s really encyclopedic in where the emissions come from,” Singer said. “But the real value in the report … is [that it is] a full menu of regulatory measures that can prevent the waste of methane and the greenhouse gas pollution that methane represents.”
While data showing increased venting and flaring is alarming for environmentalists, it is in sharp contrast to figures from the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, which pegs methane emissions from venting and flaring at less than 4 percent of overall Permian emissions.
Citing 2017 data from the Environmental Protection Agency — which environmentalists criticize as inaccurate — association spokesman Robert McEntyre said overall methane emissions in the Permian are trending downward.
“As part of overall emissions, venting and flaring is a source of methane emissions. But based on the data that we’re seeing, it’s a small part of overall emissions,” McEntyre said.
“The goal is always to have infrastructure in place to capture that gas and send it to market,” McEntyre continued. “If the priority wasn’t there and that wasn’t an attractive option, you wouldn’t see billions of dollars invested in gas-processing facilities throughout the southeast. But because of the scale and because of the speed of growth in southeast New Mexico, permits and infrastructure don’t always catch up with oil production.”
From 2011-17, New Mexico methane emissions from oil and natural gas production decreased by 51 percent, to 182,924 metric tons from 378,025, according to the association, which cites EPA data. Production climbed 31 percent over the same period.
The EPA does not yet have 2019 data.
Environmentalists say the methane reductions cited by the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association are inaccurate because they are projections based on production figures, rather than an extrapolation made from actual air sampling.
After President Donald Trump’s administration axed a Barack Obama-era rule that required oil and gas companies on public and tribal lands to reduce methane emissions, further reductions may be in the hands of state regulators.
“We need our state to protect us,” said the Sierra Club’s Feibelman.
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the last name of New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Robert McEntyre.