Climate-saving methane rules at risk

By Camilla Feibelman, 
Rio Grande Chapter director

A riddle: What is invisible and odorless and does more harm than carbon dioxide? If you’ve been paying attention to the Rio Grande Chapter’s work over the last year, you know the answer.

Methane is the primary component of natural gas and is unfortunately accidentally leaked and intentionally vented and flared by the oil and gas industry during extraction, gathering, storage and distribution.

In addition to being a devastating greenhouse gas, wasted methane, extracted on our public lands, represents a huge loss of royalties to our state. In fact, over a five-year period New Mexico lost out on $50 million of revenue due to natural-gas waste on public lands. Those revenues could have gone to support public education, infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges or conservation efforts.

Although some states, most notably Colorado, have created state rules to deal with this issue, most, including New Mexico, have not. The consequences are real and serious. Methane is 86 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year period, but as I’ll discuss, is fairly easy to capture. Volatile organic compounds known as VOCs are emitted from oil and gas operations along with the methane, forming smog and contributing to serious health problems, leading to lost days at school and work.

Two federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management, proposed safeguards requiring oil and gas operators to detect leaks and repair them, in addition to other measures that would curb these emissions.

But as with much of the progress we’ve made for the environment over the last eight years, these rules are at risk under the incoming Donald Trump administration.

On November 15, the BLM finalized its rule to cut methane waste, updating 30-year-old regulations by taking action to reduce venting (intentional releases of gas into the atmosphere), flaring (burning off gas that is a byproduct of extraction), and leaks from existing and future oil and gas projects on our public and tribal lands.

The BLM rule is built on the strong action taken by the EPA earlier this year regulating new sources of methane pollution from oil and gas facilities. The BLM rule is at risk from the Congressional Review Act, which allows the U.S. Congress to repeal any rule finalized after late May or early June, depending on how the timing is calculated, with a simple majority vote in both houses and a signature from the president. There is hope that the EPA rule was finalized in time to avoid such a repeal.

If Congress decides not to spend its time on Congressional Review Act fights, the administration must spend considerable time and effort if it wants to rescind finalized rules. And while the new EPA leadership could try to weaken enforcement, internal checks such as ethics rules and career staff who know they must follow the law can make it difficult to do so — as can lawsuits if the agency refuses to enforce.

Industry claims that any regulation hurts business, but a study of implementation of the rule in Colorado showed it came at low cost for operators and brought in millions per well over the years. In New Mexico, about $101 million worth of natural gas is wasted each year, or enough energy to heat 530,000 homes.

These are common-sense safeguards, and we will be vigilant in determining the best ways to preserve them.

Datu Research has identified 76 companies nationwide that manufacture, sell, and support methane mitigation controls at 500 U.S. locations across 46 states. More than half of the companies in this industry are small businesses. In a recent survey, 7 out of 10 Colorado operators said the benefits of regularly checking equipment for leaks outweigh the costs. And since Colorado’s rules went into place, regulators report a 75 percent reduction in equipment leaks in the state’s most heavily developed oil and gas field.

There is broad bipartisan support for a strong and complete BLM solution to cut natural-gas waste among a majority of voters in the American West. A January 2016 poll by Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project found that 76 percent of Republicans in Western states — and nearly 80 percent of all registered voters in Western states — support common-sense rules that cut natural gas waste on public lands.

There is also widespread support for the methane-waste rule among a diverse set of stakeholders from all walks of life — oil- and gas-industry officials, tribal members, local businesses and entrepreneurs, public health officials, and conservationists.

If we fail to reduce methane waste on our nation’s public lands our taxpayers won’t see their fair share of revenues when publicly owned resources are developed; communities will lose out on much-needed revenue for schools, roads, bridges, and conservation; we will lose an opportunity to develop an emerging methane mitigation industry; and we’ll needlessly pollute our air.

Image from Public News Service.

Climate-saving methane rules at risk
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