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Permian Basin sites’ gas leaks are increasing

A flare burns off excess natural gas at a site east of Artesia earlier this month. An Earthworks field advocate for New Mexico and Colorado notes that smaller well sites can create real harm for nearby communities. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Helicopters circling over New Mexico’s oil and natural gas fields this year discovered that the sites are leaking emissions at “higher-than-expected” rates.

The state Environment Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency used infrared cameras to record aerial videos of the emissions.

In the Permian Basin of southeast New Mexico, 505 of 9,100 observed storage tanks were leaking methane and volatile organic compounds.

Nearly 60 of 1,400 flares were unlit and leaking emissions.

Operators flare natural gas to release pressure, or because there is limited infrastructure to transport the gas. An unlit flare risks emitting methane or other gases that aren’t being burned off properly.

The flyovers showed that the overall leak rate at Permian Basin sites increased from 2% in 2019 to 5% in 2020.

Nathalie Eddy, an Earthworks field advocate for New Mexico and Colorado, said sites of all sizes are leaking harmful gases. Eddy’s team also documents emissions.

“There’s a misperception that it’s acceptable to ignore these smaller well sites,” Eddy told the Journal. “What we see is that those smaller well sites can create real harm for communities living nearby.”

The state also surveyed sites in the San Juan Basin of northwest New Mexico. Those sites had a 3% leak rate.

NMED Secretary James Kenney said the leaks threaten public health.

“It’s clear that voluntary emissions reductions measures undertaken by some operators are not enough to solve this problem,” Kenney said in a statement. “This is an undeniable call to action for our department to strengthen our draft ozone precursor rules, and for every oil and natural gas operator with leaking equipment documented in these videos to immediately get emissions under control.”

State agencies are developing emissions reduction rules for the oil and gas industry, as tasked by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s executive order on climate change.

The Environment Department’s draft rule focuses on equipment fixes to prevent methane emissions and other air pollutants.

NMED said they will release a revised rule in March.

The state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department has created a rule that would require operators to reach a 98% gas capture rate by the end of 2026.

The proposed rule encourages operators to find and fix leaks before the state steps in. The Oil Conservation Commission will hold hearings on the proposed rule in early January.

Most of this year’s documented leaks are the result of faulty equipment or unaddressed leaks, NMED said. Videos of the flyovers are on the department’s YouTube channel.

The state and federal government will pursue fines for any air quality violations documented by the team.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

 


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