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Trade group sees economic potential in methane emissions

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Scientists say methane pollution poses a public health risk and is the second-largest industrial contributor to climate change in the United States.

Patrick Von Bargen has something to add to that: “Capturing leaked methane is going to be an important source of employment in the future, so are we going to bring those jobs to New Mexico, or not?”

Bargen is the director of the Center for Methane Emissions Solutions, a trade group of technology firms and service providers focused on the economic potential of methane.

At an event hosted by his organization, Bargen said that methane — the main component of natural gas that is often leaked by oil and gas drilling operations — is the source of about $200 million in lost gas revenue for New Mexico energy companies, as the result of faulty equipment or inefficient practices.

For businesses that can find ways to help those companies capture methane or prevent it from leaking, according to Bargen, there is a significant financial upside and job creation opportunity.

The event was moderated by Synthia Jaramillo, the city of Albuquerque’s director of economic development, who said the topic was proof that officials “don’t need to choose between saving the environment and creating jobs.”

A panel included representatives from the Canadian company Airworks Compressors Corp., the San Francisco and Albuquerque-based technology company Xpansiv Data Systems and the Santa Fe-based investment firm Horizons Sustainable Financial Services.

Bargen said regulation can aid the growth of the methane leak industry. He pointed to Colorado, where he said environmental advocates and extractive industry representatives came together to pass statewide methane emissions regulations after the appearance of several local measures aimed at banning fracking. In part because of the law, said Bargen, the industry has flourished there.

The discussion takes place as the country’s executive and judicial branches spar over an Obama-era air pollution regulation. Last month, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it would replace the rule, which requires energy companies to capture methane emissions at drilling sites. The oil and gas industry and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have argued that the rule is overly burdensome to businesses.

A federal judge subsequently ordered the department to reinstate the regulation, stating that its absence would likely cause “irreparable injury” to states like New Mexico. An earlier attempt by the department to delay part of the rule was also overturned by a federal court.

Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association who attended the event, called the federal regulation “a heavy-handed, top-down approach” and said the methane pollution issue is best addressed by giving energy companies the freedom to innovate their own solutions. He also disputed Bargen’s characterization of the Colorado law.

“It’s like taking a cow to a slaughterhouse and saying, ‘Do you want to be a steak or a rawhide?” he said.

Darryl Weflen, president of Airworks Compressors and one of the event’s panelists, had his own bovine metaphor. Weflen said a large system offered by his company will cost between $70,000 and $80,000. Without regulation, he argued, energy company CFOs are less likely to make investments that could benefit them in the long-term but have a significant short-term financial impact.

“Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” asked Weflen.

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