Methane waste is big news in New Mexico. According to a report by the Environmental Defense Fund, oil and gas companies are wasting about 1 million metric tons of methane annually, twice the amount previously reported. The Environmental Protection Agency just released its annual Greenhouse Gas Inventory showing no reduction in methane emissions from the oil and gas industry in 2017. And at Monday’s hearing of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee in Santa Fe, Congressional leaders, including Deb Haaland and Ben Ray Luján, heard testimony about the harms caused by methane emissions and the urgent need for action.
Data from the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division corroborate these findings. In 2018, companies flared 489,179 metric tons of methane and vented 50,240 metric tons, a 117% increase in flaring and a 56% increase in venting over the previous year. This represents 2.4% of total state natural gas production. Importantly, other kinds of waste, such as leaks and routine operating releases, could double that percentage. What’s going on here?
It’s common for oil wells to also produce gas from a reservoir. This gas is vented or flared when companies race to extract more valuable oil without investing in gathering systems to transport gas to market. With gas prices at historic lows, it’s no surprise companies are going after oil but putting gas out with the trash. But there’s much more at stake than corporate profits.
After Monday’s hearing, NMOGA Executive Director Ryan Flynn said: “We’ve got a good record when it comes to methane emission(s).” But the state’s figures offer more proof of oil and gas companies’ wasteful practices. According to EDF, methane waste on public lands costs the state treasury $43 million each year, and pollution emitted alongside methane contributes to ozone formation and cancer, threatening public health. Methane is also a climate super-pollutant, 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Venting and flaring volumes last year were on par with the annual greenhouse gas emissions of almost two coal plants. As the state strives to build a clean energy future, why should this industry be allowed to take us a giant step backward?
State data also identify those responsible for this waste. In 2018, the 10 companies flaring the most gas were Devon, COG, Oxy, Marathon, Cimarex, EOG, XTO, Apache, Amerdev and WPX, accounting for 73% of all flaring. Only three companies, Matador, Bopco and XTO, were responsible for 87% of all venting. Yet, some in industry recognize the need to solve this problem. Pioneer Natural Resources CEO Scott Sheffield said at a recent energy conference: “It’s a black eye for the Permian Basin. The state, the pipeline companies and the producers – we all need to come together to figure out a way to stop the flaring.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has promised state action on methane. As agency rule-making unfolds, we’re going to hear claims from industry that a) they’re already reducing methane emissions, b) voluntary action is enough, c) federal action is needed to avoid a patchwork of state rules – after opposing federal rules that would let the states do it, d) venting and flaring are just part of normal business operations, and/or e) new regulations will drive away the industry.
But the OCD statistics, the new EDF report, the House hearing and federal rollbacks all make an unassailable case that New Mexico has a serious methane problem and it is time for the state to fix it.