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Photo of PNM's San Juan Coal Fired Generator Plant for the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter website

By Denise Fort, Research Professor, UNM School of Law
Chapter Energy Committee chair

New Mexicans are well aware that we have the dubious honor of contributing to an enormous methane hot spot that hovers over the Four Corners Area. Methane is a pernicious greenhouse gas and a pollutant that affects health at ground level.

And lost methane means lost revenues, because royalties and taxes would otherwise be owed on it.

The Obama Administration is moving forward with methane regulation. The regulations take two forms: one directed at lessees on federal lands (BLM regulations) and the other proposed by EPA to regulate air emissions from operations on all lands. We work with an active coalition of environmental groups and affected citizens to support these regulations. Four of our five congressional representatives have indicated their support for federal regulation, along with Attorney General Hector Balderas.

Methane pollution is weird. It’s really just natural gas, which the operators don’t find worth capturing for a variety of reasons. Leakage occurs when a well is first developed and is exacerbated in fracking by the use of fluids intended to replace water. It can occur in the transport of gas through pipelines and in the processing of gases. Most visibly, flaring is a means of burning off unwanted gas. But why would a company burn off a seemingly valuable resource? The reason typically is that there are no pipelines near an oil well (oil and gas are often co-produced), and the price of oil is sufficiently high that the company doesn’t want to build a pipeline and capture gas. Poor maintenance practices are also involved, as field research is beginning to indicate that a few outliers are responsible for a large percentage of leaks.

The interests of the oil and gas companies and their contractors aren’t the same as those who own the land (we the people, in the case of BLM lands) or those who receive royalties or other revenues from oil and gas development (including the state). The damage to the earth and our future from these emissions is significant.

What can we do? In the short run, we need to be vocal about the damage caused by methane and companies’ responsibility to stop these emissions. The proposed regulations are good, but not sufficient, so we should anticipate further refinement. Industry is responding with a familiar, and inconsistent, refrain: the regulations are too expensive, and we’re already doing what they require. (Huh?)

The industry may be waiting for the end of the Obama Administration in hopes of a more pliant president. That has obvious implications for us in electoral terms but also suggests that we need to persuade a lot more people that these regulations make sense. For example, the Colorado legislature enacted these controls at a state level. We also need that buy-in from our legislators.

Bottom line: let Chapter Director Camilla Feibelman know if you can help: camilla.feibelman@sierraclub.org.


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