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Editorial: Scalpel, not ax, needed on BLM’s new methane rule

The U.S. Senate is poised to consider rolling back the Bureau of Land Management’s Methane and Waste Prevention Rule, an extensive update of 30-year-old federal regulations governing the flaring, venting and leaking of methane – the major component of natural gas and a key contributor to atmospheric warming.

But instead of annihilating the regulations wholesale, which the oil and gas industry would like, our senators should preserve the many positive fiscal and environmental aspects of the well-researched regulations and either revise or carve out those they deem unsalvageable. (House Republicans have already voted to repeal the rule.)

There is a lot at stake, particularly for New Mexico, which derives a huge portion of its revenues from the oil and gas industry, and can’t afford to waste a drop of income in the current budget crisis. Just as important is the fact that New Mexico is home to the highest concentration of atmospheric methane in the nation – a “hotspot” the size of Delaware situated over the San Juan Basin. It was discovered by NASA imagery in 2014.

Because methane is highly effective at absorbing the sun’s heat, it’s a key contributor to atmospheric warming, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. As such, methane is considered a greenhouse gas, like carbon dioxide. Even though methane doesn’t linger in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, it is initially more devastating to the climate. In the first two decades after its release, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to EPA research. Although methane comes from both natural and man-made sources, the largest source of industrial emissions is the oil and gas industry.

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And the waste of methane is expensive. The BLM says that on federal and Indian leases across the nation in 2014, nearly $454 million of natural gas was vented or flared – gas that would have netted $56 million for taxpayers. A 2014 report by Western Values Project said New Mexico taxpayers had lost out on more than $42.7 million in royalty revenue since 2009 because of uncaptured gas.

At the behest of the Government Accountability Office, the Office of the Inspector General and members of Congress, the BLM updated its methane regulations and released them last November. Proponents of the updated regulations, which apply to oil and gas operations on public and tribal lands, say they will reduce harmful methane emissions, curb waste of public resources, and provide a fair return for federal taxpayers, tribes and states.

The revised rule limits how much methane can be vented, leaked or flared from oil and gas wells, pipelines and other infrastructure, and instead directs producers to capture the gas and send it to refineries where it can be sold on the open market. In the process, the gas – which is owned by taxpayers – produces additional revenue for the states, royalty beneficiaries and, presumably, the producers and refiners. Producers also must periodically inspect operations for leaks and replace outdated equipment.

But industry officials say the math won’t work out, they are already doing enough to curtail methane emissions – down 40 percent since 2006 – and the regulations hurt small producers. To that end, the regulations phase in requirements, gradually increasing capture rates to 98 percent by 2026, giving producers time to tend to their infrastructure and comply.

And while the mere fact of being small is not a strong argument for continuing to pollute public skies or waste public dollars, there is a valid concern that under the rule some wells originally drilled for oil are now leaking methane, but are in areas where the infrastructure to capture gas is 1.) expensive and 2.) takes months in regulatory approval. There are also reasonable questions regarding pipeline capacity, access to those pipelines, market volatility and the painfully slow permitting processes. This regulation should be crafted so it gets producers to fix the system, not puts them out of business so they can’t. The West is already littered with plenty of abandoned and seeping mines; it does not need a commensurate number of well heads.

But it does need improved methane regulation. A hot spot that can been seen from space and tens of millions of dollars in natural gas that are lost each year should be a bipartisan issue worthy of compromise. And there’s a terrible wrinkle in any repeal – the act that allows Congress to dump this rule also prohibits the federal agency from adopting similar rules in the future. That’s a lose-lose proposition for New Mexico and the nation.

Because the new regulations don’t kick in until January 2018, there’s time to address the shortcomings in the revised Methane and Waste Prevention Rule. It would be a great disservice if the Senate joins the House to simply toss out the entire rule in favor of continuing to waste a valuable natural resource at the expense of the public’s coffers and clean air.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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