BLM Hearing On Methane Leaks Draws Confrontation

Scene of the huge crow attending the all day hearings on BLM's draft regulations. Valley Daily Post photo

BLM Hearing On Methane Leaks Draws Confrontation

Staff Report

FARMINGTON – San Juan College in Farmington was the setting for a tense confrontation between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the oil and gas industry and concerned citizens from as far away as Washington, DC.

The meeting was one of four scheduled by the BLM to accept public comments on their draft regulation to address persistent methane leaks in Rio Arriba and San Juan counties from industry venting, flaring and leaking. Attendees started pouring in at 8 am for a meeting that didn’t start until 1 p.m. 118 people signed up to speak before the BLM closed the list at 12:30 pm.

Participants, dominated by local oil and gas employees, quickly filled the two rooms allotted for the meeting.  It became so crowded that during beginning remarks by BLM Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Amanda Leiter, the San Juan County Fire Marshals declared the rooms over occupancy limit. An estimated 600 participants were asked to leave and re-convene in a nearby auditorium.  

Leitner resumed her introduction of the draft ruling, including a history of the methane accumulations in the Four Corners area, which extend into Rio Arriba County and make up the infamous methane hot-spot identified by NASA in photographs from space last year.

Leitner outlined four goals of the regulation while emphasizing the BLM’s recognition that industry will need time to adjust.   The goals are: 1) Reduce Venting, 2) Limit Routine Flaring, 3) Use modern Leak Detection And Repair (LDAR) best practices and, 4) Clarify what escaping methane is subject to royalties.

She further stressed that the existing regulations governing fugitive emissions have not been updated in over 30 years and, “…we need to recognize the tremendous technological advances that industry has made” that now allow them to more responsibly deal with these powerful pollution sources.  Methane is 87 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

The public comments, limited to three minutes each, included speakers from local governments, industry employees and an eclectic mix of citizens concerned about immediate health issues, climate change, and lost taxpayer dollars, including a 15 year old El Dorado high school student.

The mayors of Farmington, Bloomfield, Aztec and Kirtland all spoke against the regulation, citing declining profits in oil and gas.  Colorado’s La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt spoke in favor and encouraged the BLM to, “…strengthen the regulation by removing exclusions for low volume wells.  If they are uneconomical, they should be capped.  Otherwise, aren’t we saying that we are going to continue to let industry pollute for profit?”

Rio Arriba Planning and Zoning Director Lucia Sanchez, representing the County, said, “We all have resistance to change, especially when we feel it is being put upon us by government.  But this is an issue that we’re all in together, it’s about health and safety of our citizens, revenue for industry and taxpayers alike, clean air and responsible management of our natural resources.  I frankly don’t see how we can be at odds with these goals.”  

Oil field workers bristled visibly at the testimony in support of the regulation, and leveled strident accusations of incompetence at the BLM.  After several people had spoken in favor of the regulation, one worker yelled, “This is rigged!” and stormed out along with a few others.

Larry Emerson, a farmer and member of the Navajo tribe who lives with oil and gas impacts on the Reservation said, “I use oil and gas, but I built a solar home and use a rocket (clean burning wood) stove.”  “Yes, we live in a world of contradictions, but we should strive to be an example of our traditional worldview and that is to be sustainable and to live in beauty.”

Numerous Native Americans, some from tribal governments, spoke in favor of the regulation, none against.

Those speaking against the regulation were consistent in listing industry’s loss of profits, and emphasized that oil and gas royalties and taxes comprise 35% of state revenues.  Local business owner Jason Sandel (Aztec Well Service) received a standing ovation from oil field workers when he said, “The truth is that the BLM methane rule has the potential to put us and our employees out of business and on the unemployment line.”  

That sentiment was echoed repeatedly, and included an emotional speech from a local banker whose husband had recently been laid off, throwing their retirement plans into disarray.  “There’s not many jobs for a 60 year old oil field worker.”

Camilla Feibleman of the Sierra Club countered the economic arguments saying, “Don’t let profits divide and conquer us.”  She went on to cite the boom in New Mexico’s solar industry and the 2,000 jobs it has created.

Rio Arriba County rancher Don Schreiber offered BLM officials endorsements of the rule from Senators Udall and Heinrich and Congressmen Lujan and Grisham as well as a support letter sent to BLM Director Neil Kornze containing the names of 39 New Mexico elected officials, including state senators and representatives, mayors, city and county councilmen and commissioners.

Schreiber closed his comments with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, “I recognize the right of this generation to develop and use our natural resources, but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob by wasteful use, the generations that come after us. “