FARMINGTON – Nearly 800 people flooded the San Juan College’s Henderson Fine Arts Center auditorium Tuesday to weigh in on the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed set of regulations aimed at reducing methane leaks on public and tribal lands.
The public comments, which came after a 45 minute BLM briefing about the proposed changes, came from two camps: those seeking to protect the environment and eliminate waste and those worried about the impact of the regulations on oil and gas industry jobs and the regional economy.
At times, frustrations bubbled up and some of those who objected to the proposed rules started booing, shouting and noisily yawning during testimonials. When the Farmington mayor asked those in the crowd opposed to the BLM’s proposed regulations to stand up, most attendees rose to their feet.
“The implementation of these proposed rules will kill revenue to state and federal government,” said Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts. “And it will kill jobs at the local level.”
To find the source of Farmington and San Juan County, New Mexico, residents’ frustration, one doesn’t need to look far. Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report that showed the area ranked first in the nation in the rate of unemployment growth – from 5.2 percent in 2014 to 7.3 percent in 2015. Since 2009, the region has lost an estimated 6,000 jobs, mainly as a result of a declining oil and gas industry.
“I’ve seen the affects in my community,” said Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein. “This will be a knock-out blow to an already-crippled community.”
In January, the BLM proposed an update to 30-year old regulations on methane and natural gas leaks on BLM and Native American lands. BLM officials estimate the tougher regulations would reduce emissions of the potent methane by about 169,00 tons per year, and decrease volatile organic compound releases by 410,000 tons per year. That reduction would be in keeping with an earlier Obama Administration goal of reducing methane emissions by 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2015.
Measures would include requiring energy companies to ban intentional methane releases, routine inspections for leaks and installing the most up-to-date infrastructure at well sites.
Those in the oil and gas field see such proposed enforcement as the final nail in the coffin of an industry struggling to hit a bottom line.
“If these regulations go into effect, it would cost so much per well, the only business they’ll have here is plugging,” said George Kartchner, a Farmington resident and gas field worker.
Although energy workers dominated in numbers at the public hearing, those in favor of stricter regulations arrived early, which allowed them to sign up and speak first.
Over the course of four hours, the pro-methane rule camp thinned out the tightly wound crowd.
“This is rigged, I’m out of here!” said one frustrated oil worker. Others followed.
Supporters of the proposed rules maintained that cracking down on methane leaks will not only save the state and federal government revenue from lost resources, the plan’s implementation will protect the environment.
“We have the reddest spot on the map in terms of having methane emissions in the United States,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt. “This is a step in the right direction.”
In 2014, satellite images captured a massive “hot spot” of methane over the Four Corners, which is the second largest producer of natural gas in the U.S. Several studies are underway.
The industry has maintained that natural sources, such as outcroppings, as well as the contribution of coal mines, gas refineries and agriculture make it too complicated to blame natural gas operations for the methane problem.
Don Schreiber, a Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, rancher whose family arrived in the region in the 1940s, said he’s seen a lot of industry booms and busts over the years. Having many friends in the oil and gas field, it frustrated him to see hardworking men and women misplace their anger.
“It’s very natural for them to scapegoat the misery they feel, and they are scapegoating this BLM rule in the face of all the facts,” Schreiber said. “The economic downturn already happened here, and it’s driven entirely by the price of gas and oil, which is largely out of our control.
“I wish we could educate them,” he continued. “The story is always the same.”
According to the BLM, enough natural gas was wasted between 2009 and 2014 to power 5.1 million homes a year; taxpayers lose $23 million in royalties from leaked gas a year; and the new rules could financially benefit operators up to $188 million annually.
Toward the end of the meeting, the crowd, significantly diminished, was asked to stand up by Dr. Richard Grossman, a Durango resident, if they had children.
“And you care about the health of your children?” Grossman asked. “Well, if you care about the health of your children, I think we should follow the lead of the BLM and support the rule they have proposed.”