What is the methane hotspot?
The Four Corners recently earned the unfortunate distinction of having the highest concentrations of methane in the United States. This anomaly is a cause for serious concern – methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas behind carbon dioxide, and far more impactful. NASA and the University of Michigan released the report unveiling the hotspot in 2014, and in an August 2016 report they discovered that the natural gas extraction industry is responsible for a majority of the pollution. Scientists are still working to identify more sources of the methane, and identify their relative contributions, so decision makers can better manage the pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) each created the first ever sets of rules regulating methane pollution from the oil and gas industry in 2016. We are watching each agency to ensure each rule is implemented adequately.
Methane (CH4) is a colorless, non-toxic, and highly flammable greenhouse gas. When burned, it turns into carbon dioxide. Methane is emitted by natural sources such as wetlands, and through human activities, primarily oil and gas drilling and the raising of livestock. Methane is the primary component of natural gas, a fuel used for electricity generation that also contains other gases and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Why is the hotspot bad?
Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is far worse than carbon dioxide for the climate. Over 20 years methane is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In 2013, New Mexico alone wasted more than 250,000 metric tons of methane – double the greenhouse gas emissions of the state’s 700,000 cars. In the Four Corners, a region particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, these emissions must be cause for significant concern.
Methane waste is wasted money. Each year oil and gas production on federal and tribal lands in the United States is wasting enough methane to supply Chicago for a year. These yearly losses are valued at more than $360 million, and could be recaptured and brought to market with existing technologies. As a result of this waste, taxpayers are estimated to have lost $32 million in royalties in 2013 alone.
Methane alone is not a direct public health issue, but it is commonly associated with the concurrent release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other toxic pollutants. These pollutants are linked to cancer, respiratory diseases and neurological damage.
What causes the hotspot?
Methane is the primary component of natural gas. It is emitted into the atmosphere during the production, processing, storage, transmission, and distribution of natural gas for energy. Many wells, especially legacy wells, are not properly cased or cemented to prevent leaks and many others are designed to vent methane into the atmosphere.
The Conoco-Phillips’ San Juan Basin oil and gas facilities, particularly their coal-bed methane wells from the Fruitland coal formation, collectively add up to be the largest single source of methane in the United States.
Natural gas is often found alongside oil. Therefore, production, refinement, transportation, and storage of crude oil are also sources of methane emissions. In some circumstances, wells are designed to capture both oil and gas for market, but often natural gas is vented or flared and only oil is captured.
The San Juan Basin is home to 26,000 active oil and gas wells, and over 11,200 abandoned wells.
See our Oil and Gas program page for more info.
Methane is also found in underground coal beds. Where a coal reserve meets the surface of the land, through natural seeps or mining, methane is released into the atmosphere. Sometimes this gas is captured, but often it is not.
The San Juan Basin is home to three coal mines – Navajo Mine, San Juan Mine, and King Coal Mine. The basin also contains methane seeps, the most prolific of which is the Fruitland outcrop.
See our Coal program page for more info.
Several agencies, including NASA and NOAA, are currently investigating the sources of methane. In August 2016, scientists from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory released a report confirming that the energy industry (mainly the natural gas industry) is responsible for a majority of the methane pollution in the San Juan Basin. Additional studies from NASA and NOAA are underway and will further identify sources of methane in the area.
“Most of the [methane] plumes we observed were directly related to industrial facilities.” – Christian Frankenberg, NASA
Methane rules released!
After years of pressure from environmental groups, including SJCA, both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) completed rule-making that will address methane pollution in 2016. The EPA and BLM are no longer accepting public comments on the rules. To stay updated on the implementation processes and action opportunities, sign up for our communications.
The EPA has the authority, under the Clean Air Act, to regulate the emissions of a single pollutant. The recently released EPA methane rule is the first ever attempt to regulate the gas.
The EPA methane rule applies to new and modified oil and gas facilities. The rule requires oil and gas drillers to stop methane leaks and capture lost gas in production, processing, transmission, and storage – even from wells intended only for oil production. The EPA rule also addresses methods for reducing volatile organic compound (VOC) pollution from the same wells.
The current rule does not address existing sources of methane pollution, but in March 2016 the EPA announced intentions to draft a rule that will. For the San Juan Basin this is particularly important, as the greatest methane threat is from existing infrastructure.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has the obligation and authority, under the Mineral Leasing Act, to manage federal resources to prevent waste. They also have the authority to charge royalties on resources extracted from federal lands, in this case natural gas.
The recently released BLM rule will regulate new, modified, and existing sources of methane. The San Juan Basin has more existing than proposed sources, so the rule will particularly impact this region. This rule will also address flaring, the intentional burning of wasted natural gas to transform it into carbon dioxide, which the current EPA rule does not cover.
After months of threats from Congress to overturn the rule, the Senate voted in May of 2017 to keep the rule intact. This was a HUGE win! Now we are watching to make sure that funding stays in place, and the rule isn’t modified in any way that makes it ineffective.
Stay Informed About the Four Corners Methane Hotspot.
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