A flare burns in September 2019 at a Permian Basin well site in Carlsbad.

Don Schreiber can look out from his house and see 10 oil wells on his cattle ranch, a sight he finds more disconcerting since a recent study deemed the operator the worst methane polluter in the country.

The wells dotting his ranchland like unwanted shrubs are part of the 120 wells that Hilcorp Energy Co. operates after buying a declining oil field from ConocoPhillips in the Farmington area four years ago.

The Houston-based company’s methane emissions are the highest in the U.S. — and six times the national average — even though it is only the 19th largest fossil fuel producer, according to a report based largely on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.

“They didn’t get to be the worst polluter in the country just because they bought an aging field but because of how they operate this field and their company philosophy,” said Schreiber, who is also a staunch anti-oil industry activist.

The Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group, and Ceres, an eco-conscious investor network, commissioned the study, which compares methane releases from companies large and small, including in New Mexico’s San Juan and Permian basins.

Some of the worst offenders are smaller companies such as Hilcorp that emit large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, relative to the quantity of oil they produce — or at a “greater intensity,” said David McCabe, a staff scientist with the task force.

While the 195 smallest producers in the nation collectively account for just 9 percent of production, they are responsible for 22 percent of total reported emissions, according to the study.

The Permian Basin’s reported emissions fall in the middle of the pack nationally, but when unreported releases are taken into account — based on monitoring data by state agencies and advocacy groups — the Permian has some of the country’s highest emissions, McCabe said.

“Because it’s such a huge basin, it’s a huge concern,” McCabe said.

In an email, state Environment Department spokeswoman Maddy Hayden wrote that the study’s findings are line with the agency’s observations during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This report is no surprise to us — in 2020, we saw significant increases in unlawful emissions from oil and gas operations in New Mexico,” Hayden wrote. “It’s clear that voluntary emission reductions are not enough to solve the widespread compliance issues in the San Juan and Permian Basins.”

A Hilcorp spokesman wrote in an email the study unfairly maligned the company.

“The formula used in this report is based on estimates of emissions that don’t reflect actual conditions,” Nick Piatek wrote. “Most troubling, the estimates do not take into account any of the modernization of equipment or operational improvements that Hilcorp routinely implements when we acquire legacy assets. This is a critical flaw in the study’s approach.”

Piatek contends the company invests to enhance production and extend the life of older oil fields.

But Hayden noted the EPA received a complaint in 2018 about how Hilcorp was running its operations in San Juan and Rio Arriba counties. State and federal regulators cited the company for allegedly breaching pollution control standards, she added.

The investigation has since expanded to include more possible infractions at several Hilcorp facilities in New Mexico, Hayden wrote.

McCabe said a big reason smaller operators tend to be bigger polluters is because they use pneumatic control systems in which pressurized natural gas opens and closes valves, releasing methane into the atmosphere.

Regulators, conservationists and many lawmakers are pushing to have air compressors replace this outdated equipment, but some companies — including Hilcorp — are resisting, McCabe said.

“They [Hilcorp] have got a tremendous number of pneumatic controllers,” McCabe said.

Schreiber said leaking methane is not only bad for the environment, but it’s bad business because the product is going up in the air.

“But Hilcorp won’t make the very modest investments that will control these emissions and pollutions,” Schreiber said.

New Mexico regulators seek to phase out the pneumatic controllers by 2030, McCabe said. His group considers that too slow and is pushing the state to move faster.

The EPA’s data used in the study doesn’t tell the whole story because it’s based solely on data companies submit to the agency, which means a huge amount of unreported emissions is not being counted, said Tom Singer, senior policy adviser at the Western Environmental Law Center.

New industry regulations the Environment Department and the Oil Conservation Division recently approved require more detailed reporting that should boost accountability, Singer said.

“Our understanding of which companies are climate polluters and which aren’t and why is going to improve dramatically,” Singer said. “Hence the state’s ability to regulate the so-called bad actors.”

(17) comments

Robert Fields

Just more of that rotten Trump brand influence and ignorance. Video out from the orange fascist’s recent birthday party showed Yvette Harrell partying it up with him and his sycophants. Texas is about to get pressed hard by record heat, the whole southwest is heating up big time, and republicans still just don’t understand how CO2 and methane trap heat or that they are the hand-in-hand legacy of fossil fuels.

Go buy that new Escalade, Armada, or Continental, boys! It’s got air conditioning! Let’s pump more oil! Extract more gas! Heat the planet even more instead of even attempting to slow this train down! We got some pollutin’ to do! Meanwhile, the planet dies right before our eyes.

Mike Johnson

And much more to come too: "A Louisiana federal judge issued an order lifting President Biden’s moratorium on new oil and gas leases on federal land Tuesday, ruling that the White House did not give any “rational explanation” for implementing the pause.

US District Judge Terry Doughty sided with 13 states in granting a preliminary injunction that applies nationwide. " Read it and weep eco-socialists.

Dan Lewis

Whereas 39 states would like a clean, safe environment. Ahh, are you longing for the good old days when industry could pollute anything it touched?

Mike Johnson

Been to Lea, Eddy, or San Juan counties lately? Apparently not.

Lee DiFiore

NM did not join the lawsuit decided by the judge in Louisiana because they didn't want to offend the biden admin but I'm betting there is some secret high-fiving going on in NM state government after that decision. In today's New Mexican there is another article about NM surpassing ND as the number 2 oil producing state. No one wants to harm the goose laying all those golden eggs.

Robert Fields

Um, you really haven’t noticed the record heat or do you just look the other way and crank your A/C down even lower? We know you promote oil and gas in NM but are you really that oblivious to the consequences of using coal, oil, and gas?

Texas is looking at more blackouts as their electrical system buckles under the load from record heat. Crops are stunting and yields are dropping. But you lift a glass and celebrate this “success”?

Russell Scanlon

We cannot fix this immense problem without acknowledging that everyone, consumer and producer, has a role in the climate catastrophe. But it still has to be fixed and things have to change for the sake of our survival.

Cleve Spence

On the way to Farmington last night two huge gas flares were lighting up the night time sky around the Chaco turnoff.

Margaret Eyler

Wouldn't Mr Schreiber be collecting money for having those wells on his property?

Micaela Fischer

It's split estate, with the mineral ownership being public, so no.

Mike Johnson

Exactly, and no doubt the real reason this alleged "activist" is angry and upset.....

Amy Earle

And yet the climate deniers scream about government regulations and oil and gas is always a hot button issue during every NM election. If these violators don’t want to make the necessary improvements then shut them down. These areas of the state are much too dependent on a dirty industry that is terrible for the environment. Maybe if these people could stop screaming about their freedoms long enough they might be able to understand that the Biden administration has a plan to bring energy into the future and provide jobs that don’t further put the environment in danger. We aren’t living through heat wave after heat wave and drought after drought for no reason.

Moses Townsend

The question is…what do we shift to that realistically can support our economy like oil and gas does at the moment?

I don’t know, but we clearly do need to shift to clean energy. But we can’t be hasty and expect to just drop our reliance on oil and gas suddenly since they fund so much of our already poor state.

Patrick Brockwell

Let's go ahead and be hasty in converting to renewable sources of energy. As renewable capacity ramps up oil and gas will not be able to compete with cheap, clean energy.

Moses Townsend

I’m not saying in general across the US and world, but in NM. We get an incredible amount of funding from the oil industry currently, before we drop the ball we need to figure out what other industries would equate or exceed that funding. We’re already the poorest state in the US, or close to it. Hopefully we can find other avenues, but the data shows right now they provide a lot of revenue streams.

Moses Townsend

States and countries with healthier and more diverse economies can easily drop oil and gas production without a huge effect. We’re not one of those places is all I’m saying. Maybe someday, but for now the oil industry provides a lot of revenue for the state. We do need to shift away but not hastily until we have other sources.

I know it’s not easy for people to hear, especially in Santa Fe, where people love to tour their environmental righteous behavior and ideals. The irony is many of the people with their Prius plastered in bumper stickers will get on a jumbo jet to go on some yogi retreat in India. Don’t recall that being an eco friendly mode of travel.

Dan Lewis

Fine them, hugely. They will only change when it hurts them in their wallets.

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