October 29, 2015

Missed opportunity: Conoco’s natural gas waste is costing New Mexicans jobs

Margaret Wright

Oil pump in southeast New Mexico.

Sally Hardin is the Deputy Director of the Western Values Project, an organization that works to encourage responsible energy development on western public lands.

An expensive ad campaign by the big oil company Conoco says the company “fuels opportunity” in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, where a Delaware-sized cloud of methane has emerged thanks to oil and gas companies wastefully venting and leaking natural gas into the atmosphere. That’s right — instead of putting people to work putting that gas into pipelines so it can heat homes, some big oil companies are just leaking or burning it off.

What the ads also don’t mention is that Conoco just laid off 10% of its workforce—a good number of which are located in its San Juan Basin operations.

If the layoffs weren’t bad enough, wasting natural gas also means a loss of revenue for taxpayers, as well. Any gas that is vented, flared, or leaked by Conoco or other companies in the San Juan Basin is gas for which royalties aren’t collected, meaning that taxpayers have to suffer the waste of a public resource and gain nothing in return.

In fact, venting and flaring of natural gas by companies like Conoco—which is the biggest oil and gas producer in the San Juan Basin six times over—means that New Mexican taxpayers have lost out on over $42 million in royalties since 2009. That’s the equivalent of New Mexico’s entire budget for wildfires in 2012, or the state’s entire public defender budget in 2014. Maybe it seems like pennies to Big Oil, but that’s real money for New Mexico.

According to the oil and gas industry’s own data, they’re a big part of methane pollution in the San Juan Basin. Research has shown that in 2013, the San Juan Basin’s oil and gas industry reported emitting nearly 220,000 metric tons of methane. And yes, that’s a lot—to compare, a gas field in Wyoming that boasts twice the production of the San Juan Basin in New Mexico had only half the associated emissions. Why? Because Wyoming state set limits on natural gas emissions in the Upper Green River Basin from industry that occur as a byproduct of their production.

So if Conoco wants to “fuel opportunity” in the San Juan basin, it could start by putting people to work by selling the fuel it’s giving away for nothing. What’s more, limiting natural gas waste—and mitigating methane pollution—also creates jobs, whether it’s through the companies working to stop leaks, or through those working on developing other ways to capture that gas and put it to good use.

It’s time for the leaders in Washington to take action against this kind of natural gas waste, and create jobs by putting an end to the wasteful venting, leaking and flaring of natural gas.