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New EPA methane emissions rules celebrated by some, cause concern for others

The rules will limit leaks from over 20,000 oil and gas wells in the Four Corners
A flare burns natural gas at an oil well Aug. 26, 2021, in Watford City, N.D. A new rule announced by the EPA Saturday bans the routine practice. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

The Environmental Protection Agency announced a long-awaited final rule clamping down on methane leaks from the oil and gas industry at the United Nations COP 28 climate conference Saturday.

The rule will impact the 20,000-plus active wells in the San Juan Basin, which sits in northwest New Mexico and southwestern Colorado. La Plata County has over 2,700 active wells.

Environmentalists are heralding the announcement as another significant step toward improved air quality. In 2014, NASA discovered an enormous hot spot of the potent greenhouse gas lingering over the Four Corners caused by energy extraction.

But oil and gas producers, who have been moving toward reducing leaks as these rules flowed down the pipeline, are worried about the associated cost.

The rule requires oil and natural gas producers to monitor for methane leaks and fix them promptly, and introduces zero-emission standards for value controllers. It also lays out a two-year phaseout period in which producers must stop “flaring,” which is when uncaptured methane is burned off. There is also a provision allowing certified third-party watchdogs to monitor and report “super-emitters.”

Methane, the major component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas. The San Juan Basin produced 16,580 barrels.

The White House estimates the rule will cut the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2%.

In the next 14 years, the EPA predicts the rule will prevent the release of an estimated 58 million tons of methane, 16 million tons of smog-forming volatile organic compounds emissions and 590,000 tons of air toxics, also known as toxic air pollutants.

“This is another step creating better air quality for the Four Corners region,” said Mike Eisenfeld, the San Juan Citizens Alliance’s energy and climate program manager.

He called on oil and gas producers to “step it up” when it comes to leak detection, arguing the cost should fall on producers, not citizens.

The rule was developed, in part, using New Mexico’s regulations as a model, according to the state’s governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham.

“Colorado and New Mexico are ahead of the game,” said Gwen Lachelt, a former La Plata County commissioner and executive director of the Western Leaders Network. “This really sets a level playing field for all the states.”

Although producers in the southwest have been working toward similar benchmarks since states passed similar regulations in the last several years, Michelina Paulek, executive director of the Energy Council, says the rule will come at a cost.

In the rural San Juan Basin, she says many facilities do not have electricity. This will be a problem when operators have to upgrade the pneumatic controllers that bleed methane to controllers that run off electricity and compressed air.

“We’re still using a whole lot of fossil fuels to produce electricity,” Paulek said. “ … The costs will be passed on to consumers, inevitably.”

Oil and gas producers will have one to two years to come into compliance with the rule, depending on the provision.


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