May 12, 2016

EPA adopts methane rule; NM reacts

The EPA announced a new rule to limit methane pollution from oil and gas wells and cut the size of the methane cloud over the Four Corners.

The rule requires all U.S. oil and gas operators to capture methane and other volatile organic compounds that are currently released into the atmosphere during drilling.

The rule affects new and modified oil and gas wells. The EPA is working on a rule to cover existing oil and gas wells.

Nationally, the oil and gas industry releases 9.8 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere during the course of drilling each year. The wasted gas is worth $2 billion.

In New Mexico, where 200,000 metric tons of methane were released in 2014, the new rule will save as much $40 million in wasted natural gas. That’s enough gas to meet the heating and cooking needs of more than 200,000 homes for a year. The methane released during drilling in the San Juan Basin is the largest such “methane hot spot” in the nation, as measured by satellites orbiting the Earth.

Katee McClure, a city commissioner in Aztec, which lies beneath the Four Corners methane cloud, said the terrain of the area traps smog, “which leads to the astounding asthma problem we have here.”

“We can capture the gas and plug the leaks,” she said. “Oil and gas makes money and people are healthier.”

“These rules are a good start, now we hope to see the EPA work on a rule for the existing sources of methane that are affecting our communities right now,” said Sug McNall, who is one of four Four Corners area activists who conduct “Toxic Tours from Hell” through oil and gas waste sites to highlight the environmental cost of oil and gas extraction.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham applauded the new rule.

“Curbing methane emissions is critical for a state like New Mexico, which is a leader in oil and gas production,” she said in a news release. “Setting national methane emission standards will help protect public health, fight climate change and ensure that natural resources are not being wasted at the expense of tax payers.”

The European Space Agency’s Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography measured methane in the atmosphere from 2002 to 2012 and found that the methane cloud persisted over the Four Corners are throughout the study period.

According to NASA’s Science News website, the study’s lead author, Eric Kort of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, noted the study period predates the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, near the hot spot.

“This indicates the methane emissions should not be attributed to fracking but instead to leaks in natural gas production and processing equipment in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, which is the most active coalbed methane production area in the country,” according to NASA Science News.