On our family ranch in northwest Rio Arriba County, we’re home to grandkids, horses, cattle, elk, deer, wild turkeys — and also about 122 gas wells. We’re home to hopes and dreams and to a fossil fuel nightmare.

Hilcorp Energy, a privately owned company, owns every single one of those wells. Last month, Hilcorp made big news for being the biggest methane polluter in the nation, and the nation’s second-biggest climate polluter overall.

Most of Hilcorp’s methane pollution is in New Mexico — right here in the San Juan Basin, where it has more than 10,000 wells, including all 122 on our ranch.

Hilcorp is dumping its methane trash in our front yard.

The Clean Air Task Force report released in May measured leaks and emissions reported by oil and gas companies. As this paper points out, “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.”

The San Juan Basin, where we live, is also home to one of the most culturally rich and diverse parts of our state. It’s also where Hilcorp has profited by buying up aging and highly polluting gas wells while they seek to avoid state and federal methane waste regulations — many of which are already on the books.

Methane is about 80 times more powerful than CO2 at heating our climate, so when we stop methane leaks, vents and unlit flares, we can make a real difference in fighting the climate emergency we’re facing. Methane is the low-hanging fruit among harmful, even toxic, greenhouse gases.

The pollutants released along with methane from oil and gas wells cause asthma and heart problems, and thousands of us here in the Four Corners live within a mile of these wells. We have 33 gas wells, all owned by Hilcorp, within a mile of our ranch house. We live with that horrible smell, we hear the leaks and vents every day. It’s a nightmare.

Our state Environment Department deserves credit for closing loopholes that would have exempted Hilcorp from doing a better job detecting leaks for most of its wells here. The New Mexico Environment Department’s proposed rule to rein in ozone and methane pollution is a big improvement over the previous version.

But Hilcorp’s massive methane leaks point to the importance of strengthening New Mexico’s proposed rules even further: Hilcorp and others must stop venting all the methane when they complete a well (Colorado’s rule doesn’t allow it) and we need a timeline for transitioning to zero-emission pneumatic devices.

We know that polluters won’t hold themselves accountable. We also know that there is no “green” or “sustainable” natural gas, “clean coal” or “blue hydrogen.”

The International Energy Agency said it clearly last month: Additional oil and gas development is incompatible with meaningful and necessary climate action.

We must move away from fossil fuels as fast as possible. And climate offenders like Hilcorp must be brought into compliance. As it is, we are subsidizing Hilcorp and other polluters with huge tax breaks while they pollute and profit.

There’s been a lot of damage done by the oil and gas industry over the last 90 years. Protecting our kids and grandkids from climate disaster may seem like an incredibly steep hill to climb. But we don’t get to quit just because we’re frustrated. Strong, enforceable regulations, holding companies like Hilcorp accountable, that’s our job now. And we must invest in the many opportunities that our state has for economic diversification. That’s our way forward. We can have better lives for our families in New Mexico without depending on mega-polluters like Hilcorp.

Don Schreiber is a rancher and climate activist.

(2) comments

JJ Lozano

Not sure about the logic here and probably best to avoid sweeping statements. If we must "move away from" all lines of business and operations that have any negative impact on the environment, it would seem that would have to include ranching, which is known to be fairly impactful (not in a good way) to the environment?

Peter Romero

Hold them accountable with restorative justice. It seems to be the way everything is being dealt with.

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