A new video from the Wilderness Society and Center for Western Priorities (CWP) – groups with a long history of opposing hydraulic fracturing – claims that oil and natural gas development on public lands is wasting large sums of taxpayer dollars through flaring and methane leakage. But a closer shows that their statements do not stand up to the facts.
CLAIM: “But it is unburned gas that is even worse. Because it’s made up of methane, a greenhouse gas that is much worse for the climate than carbon dioxide and it’s leaking uncaptured and unburned from wells and pipelines on land that is owned by all Americans.”
FACT: While the groups may want you to think that oil and natural gas development is pouring methane into the air, data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that methane emissions from natural gas systems have significantly decreased even as natural gas production has soared.
Numerous studies have also found that methane leakage rates are not at levels that would negate the climate benefits of natural gas, as the groups behind this video would like you to believe.
As the graph above outlines, multiple studies – four of which are from fellow environmental group, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) – have determined that methane leakage rates are far below the 3.2 percent threshold at which point the climate benefits of natural gas begin to wane.
Finally, as EID recently detailed, a new report by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that oil and natural gas producers are not to blame for a global increase in methane emissions. The lead researcher on the study elaborated even further to Climatewire:
“Currently increasing methane levels are caused not by fossil fuel production but rather by wetlands or, more likely, agriculture.”
CLAIM: “Satellites can see a methane cloud the size of Delaware hanging over New Mexico and Colorado.”
FACT: The video attempts to link the presence of a so-called methane “hot-spot” over the Four Corners area to oil and natural gas development.
Anyone familiar with the region will know that the area is home to large natural methane seeps, abandoned mines and other sources of methane leakage that have nothing to do with oil and natural gas development. That fact was detailed in a 1999 report from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). From the report:
“Historically documented naturally occurring gas seeps throughout the San Juan Basin existed prior to oil and gas drilling operations.”
“Shallow water wells penetrating Fruitland and Menefee coalbeds around the Basin rim have historically produced methane gas. Especially notable in La Plata County, Colorado, are seeps at the northern and western rim of the San Juan Basin. Known gas seeps include the Carbon Junction area where the Animas River crosses the Fruitland Formation. At this location methane and hydrogen sulfide seeps were commonly recognized as early as the 1930’s (Amoco, 1996). Local residents noted as early as 1920 that a ‘rotten egg smell’ is being emitted from the Carbon Junction Area” (Whitton, personal communication, 1996). Another well-known site of historic gas seepage is a topographic low in the Hogback Monocline between Valencia Canyon and Iron Springs Canyon on the western rim of the San Juan Basin. Historically emitting odors of ‘rotten egg gas’ (hydrogen sulfide), this pass through the hogback was known by old-timers as ‘stink hill.’ Other areas of seepage existed at the northeastern edge of the San Juan Basin rim. Ranchers ignited escaping natural gas from water faucets, holes punched in iced-over streams, or known soil seeps in entertaining pyrotechnic displays impressing new-comers or merely celebrating the Christmas Season (Halverson, 1994; Hocker, 1994).” (p. 14-15) (Emphasis added)
More recently, data from Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program shows that emissions from oil and gas development have been dramatically declining in the Four Corners region of New Mexico and throughout the San Juan Basin. In fact, EPA’s data shows that methane emissions from oil and gas development in the San Juan Basin have fallen by 32 percent.
CLAIM: “You see, instead of natural gas going into pipes to American homes, flares burn it off, sending carbon dioxide into the air.”
FACT: Going into “pipes” to American homes? Organizations like the Wilderness Society have argued against the construction of pipeline infrastructure that can reduce the amount of natural gas that is flared. More importantly, EID has pointed out before that flaring is an important safety measure that follows a highly regulated, closely managed process used as a means of converting methane into CO2 and water, in turn producing far less emissions than venting the methane into the air.
It’s quite interesting to see a sudden rush of concern over the “loss” of taxpayer dollars in uncollected royalties from a pair of organizations that have rallied to stop oil and gas development altogether. A recent editorial from the Farmington Daily-Times on the impact of the proposed BLM rule the video lobbies for touched on just how ironic their argument is for taxpayers:
“One effect of the proposed changes would be to ensure wells producing smaller amounts of natural gas are taken out of service. When operators don’t produce from their wells, they ultimately lose their leases. Then the wells are plugged and abandoned. Once a low producing well is abandoned, it is unlikely it will be restarted.”
“That means no royalties and no profits from wells producing on BLM land, which would mean no royalties for the government. These new rules could cost the government millions in lost royalties.” (emphasis added)
You can’t help but wonder whether the irony and disregard for the facts on display in their new video is lost on groups like the Wilderness Society and Center for Western Priorities, or if this is just the latest move in a national campaign that is willing to say or do just about anything to advance their anti-energy agenda.