Environmental groups have repeatedly attributed the Four Corners methane “hot spot” over the borders of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah to oil and gas development, using it as the focal point of their justification for the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) controversial venting and flaring rules on federal lands.
But there is a huge issue with this strategy — the entire premise is not supported by the facts.
The latest Environmental Protection Agency Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program data show that methane emissions from large oil and gas facilities in the San Juan Basin have nearly been cut in half since 2011.
According to the EPA’s data, the oil and gas sector reduced its methane emissions in the San Juan Basin by 47 percent from 2011 to 2016, dropping from 8.6 million metric tons (mmt) to 4.6 MMmt in just four years.
This data contradicts a recent study that attributed the hot spot to oil and gas development and supports a widely held theory that the hot spot can be traced to natural seepage from the Fruitland Outcrop coal-bed formation along areas in which the formation rises to the surface. Colorado-based geologist Ashley Ager, a researcher who has been mapping coal bed methane seams in the area, addressed the topic last year at the Four Corners Energy Conference. As the Farmington Daily-Times reported,
“Our opinion is that (Fruitland seeps) are a significant contributor to the methane ‘hot spot,’” she said. “…”We have known (about) naturally occurring methane gas seeping out of the Fruitland Formation outcrops in the San Juan Basin. We’ve seen it for years. You can go back before there was any industry in the Four Corners, before mining, before oil and gas. The Southern (Ute Indian Tribe has) known that there are methane seeps in the basin for hundreds of years.”
Also, according to a 1999 report from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), “Historically documented naturally occurring gas seeps throughout the San Juan Basin existed prior to oil and gas drilling operations.”
And as Merrion Oil and Gas investment manager George Sharpe recently noted in an Albuquerque Journal op-ed, if the “hot spot” truly was attributable to oil and gas development, similar “hot spots” would exist in other areas of the United States more concentrated oil and gas infrastructure than exists than in this area San Juan Basin.
“… The oil and gas equipment on older wells in the San Juan Basin is exactly the same equipment that is on older wells in Appalachia or Kansas or Texas or Southern New Mexico, where they have many, many times the wells we have here. If the wells were causing the hotspot, you would have similar hotspots over each of these regions.”
This latest EPA data further confirms that efforts to use the four corners “hot spot” as a rallying cry to justify the BLM’s costly and duplicative venting an flaring rule are as misguided as the rule itself.