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Methane hot spot problem for air quality

Recently over a hundred people arrived in Durango, Colo., to discuss the huge methane “hot spot” hovering over the Four Corners region.

The methane plume – first discovered by NASA scientists in 2014 – is roughly the size of the state of Delaware and is the largest concentration of methane pollution in the nation.

Concerned community members from across the San Juan Basin, which encompasses New Mexico and Colorado, showed up at this public forum to get the latest intel on what’s causing the hot spot. It turns out scientists are still pointing the finger at air pollution from the region’s oil and gas facilities.

Nationally, oil and gas is widely known to be the largest industrial source of methane pollution – pumping anywhere from eight to 10 million tons of methane into the atmosphere each year. According to presenter Christian Frankenberg, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech, nearly 10 percent of nationwide oil- and gas-related methane pollution could be from this regional hot spot alone.

Experts noted the hot spot isn’t just a problem for the climate, since methane is responsible for about 25 percent of man-made global warming. It also has implications for local air quality.

Oil and gas pollution don’t solely contain methane; they also contain other harmful pollutants that can cause cancer and increase smog. In fact, during the forum, state officials were quick to point out that ozone levels in the region have risen in the past year. Though the Four Corners region is mostly rural, smog levels increased so much in recent years that the region’s air quality is now dangerously close to exceeding the national health standards.

This may seem bleak, but history has shown us there is a solution: reducing oil and gas industry emissions.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen high levels of smog in relatively rural areas with widespread oil and gas development. In 2011 air quality monitoring stations in Pinedale – a town of about 2,000 people in western Wyoming – measured smog at levels comparable to Los Angeles. As is the case here in the San Juan Basin, experts attributed the problem to pollution from the region’s oil and gas facilities. The state responded by requiring companies to reduce their pollution, and today air quality is returning to normal.

Similar efforts could have the same positive effect on reducing the hot spot. Colorado already controls emissions from oil and gas sites, and Utah just began an effort to take similar steps. New Mexico, however, has yet to step up.

The failure to act on methane isn’t merely jeopardizing our health and our air quality – it’s undercutting potential funding revenues to the state’s education budget. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, but it’s also the same energy resources that natural gas companies extract and sell, meaning the more gas energy companies waste, the less tax and royalty revenue they send back to New Mexico’s coffers. On New Mexico’s public and tribal lands alone, wasteful extraction practices result in $100 million of lost taxpayer-owned resources every year. Meanwhile, New Mexico’s public schools have been consistently underfunded and now rank among the lowest in the nation. State leaders should leave no stone unturned when it comes to finding dollars to invest in our public education system. Going after the methane hot spot is an obvious bull’s-eye.

Policies targeted at methane implemented last year by the Bureau of Land Management and Environmental Protection Agency could make a significant dent in reducing the region’s methane levels, but with the fate of those policies up in the air, additional efforts by the states – especially New Mexico – will be critical to reducing the hot spot that, for years, has been a huge black eye for the Four Corners region.

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