Natural Gas Well Leaks Taken Up By County Commission

Natural gas well pads in the San Juan basin. Courtesy photo

Natural Gas Well Leaks Taken Up By County Commission

Staff Report (This article was previously published in the Nov. 26 edition of the Valley Daily Post print edition)

The nationally infamous Four Corners methane “hot spot” was agenda item number one for the Rio Arriba County Commission meeting Thursday, Nov. 19 at the County Annex Building in Española.

Don Schreiber, a rancher and activist on petroleum well issues spoke to the county commissioners about the “hot spot” and the impacts of methane emissions on and around the northwest Rio Arriba County ranch that he and his wife have owned since 1999. 

Methane is the primary component of natural gas, and Schreiber also highlighted the economic benefits and opportunity to Rio Arriba County of cleaning up methane leaks and cutting methane flaring and venting from oil and gas operations.

In October 2014, NASA and the University of Michigan used satellite data to discover a 590,000 metric ton methane cloud over the San Juan Basin that covered 2,500 square miles.

The cloud sits over the Four Corners area in western Rio Arriba and northern San Juan counties, N.M. and southern La Plata County, Colo. According to Rio Arriba County sources, Rio Arriba has over 12,000 active and capped wells in the western side of the county.

Dubbed “the hot spot,” the methane cloud put the San Juan Basin in the national spotlight and was highlighted recently in a PBS News Hour story, “Why capping methane leaks is a win-win goal for industry and environmentalists.”

Commission Chairman Barney Trujillo had the November 4th PBS story shown at the meeting.

The story was filmed in part at the Schreiber’s ranch where the environmental group, Earthworks, used a Forward Looking InfraRed (FLIR) camera. FLIR technology allows the invisible, odorless methane to be seen escaping from both leaks and vents at wells on or adjacent to the ranch.

Schreiber told the county commissioners that the nearby wells, some within a quarter mile of the ranch house, are typical of wells within the San Juan Basin. 

“There is nothing special about the wells around here,” said Schreiber. “Some are old, some brand new, they cover all formations and methods of drilling.  They are entirely typical of wells in the Basin and of the three wells we sampled that day, all three wells were leaking or venting or both.”

Commissioner Danny Garcia, who represents western Rio Arriba County and the district where Schreibers live, interjected that while the oil and gas industry has always been critical to the economy of Rio Arriba County, it was important for the commission to pay attention to the health of their constituents and communities.

The “silver lining” for Rio Arriba Schreiber suggested may lie in the fact that by curbing methane emissions more natural gas goes to market, helping to generate additional taxes and royalties for the County.

“Cutting methane waste will ring the cash register for New Mexicans,” said Schreiber.

A Western Values Project report found that New Mexico lost upwards of $42.7 million in state revenues from about 2009 to 2014. 

Efforts to curb waste have also spurred new jobs in methane mitigation. More than a dozen companies are already working in New Mexico such as Quantigy in Albuquerque.

Schreiber noted that local workers could do the repairs needed to fix leaks and the installation of equipment to reduce venting and flaring.

“Those repair dollars could go to local workers and businesses. There’s no reason why equipment fabrication and installation couldn’t be done by local businesses in Lindrith, for example,” said Schreiber.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is expected to issue draft rules this December that would require industry to mitigate leaks and reducing venting and flaring.

Groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and New Mexico-based Partnership for Responsible Business have backed the BLM efforts to curb waste for both economic and health reasons.

 “In addition to wasting a valuable natural resource, venting, flaring and leaks from the oil and gas industry also have serious health impacts,” said Jon Goldstein of Environmental Defense Fund and former New Mexico Environment Secretary. “Elevated smog levels that can trigger asthma attacks are exacerbated by oil and gas pollution and are a concern in New Mexico especially for kids.”

Industry lobby groups have opposed additional regulations stating that the compliance costs would be onerous and would cost jobs and lower profits as many marginal wells would be “shut-in” and the revenues lost entirely.

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA) Vice President Wally Drangmeister recently told the Albuquerque Journal, “Regulations can lead to unintended consequences. They often sound good, but end up costing industry a ton of money without actually accomplishing their goals.”

NMOGA has also questioned how much the oil and gas industry actually contributes to methane pollution in the San Juan Basin and NASA’s science around whether there even is a methane “hot spot.”

Countering industry’s hardship claims, Schreiber told commissioners that Colorado passed the nation’s first methane rule last year and the state saw an increase in natural gas production after those rules took effect.

 “ConocoPhillips and others have taken some steps,” said Schreiber. “That’s a good thing, but that’s like they shut off the garden hose that was running full blast in the front yard. Now someone has to get under the house with a pipe wrench and crawl around with the spiders and fix those leaks too.”

This past summer, New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and New Mexico Reps. Ben Ray Lujan and Michelle Lujan Grisham sent a joint letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan in support of new rules being developed by the BLM and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In the letter, the delegation members wrote, “[F]ederal action is necessary to ensure that steps to limit methane releases are applied consistently across the industry.  Rules to reduce the impact of methane releases on public health, while ensuring that Americans receive fair compensation for the production of federal minerals, are critical to reducing methane waste and pollution.”

Staff from Sens. Udall and Heinrich and well as Rep. Lujan attended the meeting and thanked the Commissioners for their interest and attention to the “hot spot.”