A coalition of city and county leaders, including Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, urged the Obama administration in a letter Thursday to swiftly adopt stringent regulations aimed at capturing methane emissions from oil and gas operations.
They are the most recent public officials to weigh in on a mostly party-line debate over how and if methane emissions should be captured, with Democrats expressing support for new regulations, citing health and environmental ramifications, and Republicans objecting to additional government reach and its potential to constrict the oil and gas industry.
In coming days, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release the first of two sets of highly anticipated federal methane regulations; the second is expected to be released by the Bureau of Land Management this summer.
In the letter released Thursday, 68 officials from Colorado, Pennsylvania and New Mexico emphasized the harmful health consequences that have been associated with leaked methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to a warming climate — 80 times more than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after its release.
In the oil-rich, northwestern corner of New Mexico, the amount of leaked and vented methane is said to be higher than the amount of gas produced, and it has created a 2,500-square-mile methane cloud over the Four Corners that was discovered via satellite by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 2014. It is the highest concentration of atmospheric methane in the nation.
“For our children’s health, for our economy, and for our environment, it is important that we all work to ensure that we are venting less methane into New Mexico’s air,” Gonzales said in a statement.
In the letter, officials said residents exposed to methane can experience asthma and respiratory problems, and they risk exposure to potential carcinogens contained in volatile organic compounds that are discharged alongside methane. They also said the vented or leaked methane is an economic issue because royalties could be accrued from captured methane.
The EPA’s rule, proposed in December under the Clean Air Act, is aimed at curbing methane emissions from all future oil and gas wells. In late January, the BLM also proposed regulations for methane capture on federal and tribal lands, but that agency’s rule includes both existing and new wells.
Environmental groups have said the EPA rule is not aggressive enough because it fails to address existing operations.
On March 10, President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed to address existing sources of emissions, and the EPA said it would begin developing a complementary rule to address this requirement.
Both rules are part of an international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which the U.S. has pledged to significantly lower as part of the Paris Agreement, a global climate change accord signed by Secretary of State John Kerry last Friday.
“We won’t meet our Paris commitments if we don’t see both rules implemented,” said Camilla Feibelman of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club. “These rules are part of a larger policy.”
Alex Naranjo, chairman of the Rio Arriba County Commission and one of the signatories of the letter to Obama, said in a statement, “It’s incumbent upon us, as responsible stewards of our land and natural resources, to insist on efficient baseline standards for oil and gas production that are consistent with currently available technologies and best management practices.”
“I believe the new EPA and BLM rules move us in the right direction,” he said.
Following the BLM’s methane proposal in late January, New Mexico’s Democratic congressional delegates — Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham — expressed their support for the regulations, alongside New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and State Auditor Tim Keller.
When the public comment period closed April 22 for the proposed BLM rule, more than 330,000 members of the public had filed letters with the Federal Register. Feibelman said at least 13,000 of those letters came from New Mexico sportsmen, communities, and environmental and tribal groups who support methane capture.
Jon Goldstein, a senior policy adviser for the Environmental Defense Fund, called it “record support” and said more than 200,000 of the total comments urged the government to adopt the rule.
But last week, New Mexico State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn submitted comments saying he “strenuously” objected to the proposed regulations. They “constitute federal overreach and intrusion into the affairs of the [New Mexico State Land Office] and would result in an undue environmental burden,” he said.
Dunn said environmental groups have overstated the impact of lost revenues from methane emissions and that methane is lost to venting and flaring largely because of delays in federal permitting.
With an ongoing slump in the oil and gas market contributing to revenue losses throughout the state, many producers have said the new regulations would be too costly and would limit production, forcing smaller wells to close.
Those objections led the Conservation Economics Institute to examine just how costly the new regulations would be for producers in New Mexico. On Thursday, the institute released a study that examined 8,700 low-producing natural gas wells in two counties in the high-producing oil and gas region of the San Juan Basin.
For small producers, the report found that “capture rule [costs] are small relative to overall revenues and costs and are unlikely to be the cause of wells shutting in” — a conclusion in line with the BLM’s own findings.
The study said state royalties could increase by between $1 million and $6 million annually through methane capture regulations.
“This economics issue has been a major bone of contention on the rule with industry. They have tried to claim the rule will lead to the shut in of thousands of wells across the basin,” Goldstein said. “This report shows that won’t be the case.”
The study says implementing new technology will, in fact, increase production and offset any regulatory costs.
But Wally Drangmeister, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said the institute’s study was flawed, overestimating the volumes flared while underestimating operating and regulatory costs.
“When you also consider the fact that [the study] didn’t adequately consider improvements that oil and gas companies have already made,” he said, “it is easy to see why they came up with such a flawed conclusion.
“To argue that there is some conspiratorial plot for oil and gas companies not to capture every molecule of natural gas possible in an economical way is ludicrous on its face,” Drangmeister added.
Liliana Castillo, a spokeswoman for Conservation Voters New Mexico, said the issue encompasses a much larger scope than merely pitting industry against the environment.
The bigger question, she said, is “What is our vision for New Mexico going to be? Because many of the resources that our [state] budget is dependent on are not going to last forever, and that’s just a fact.”
“We need a sustainable economy,” she said, one “that works for all the people of New Mexico.”