NASA Discovers Massive Methane Leak Over the Four Corners
Last month, NASA scientists announced that “leaks” from natural-gas producers in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin have created a 2,500-square-mile cloud of methane hovering over the Four Corners. The methane cloud, exposed by satellite data and unnoticed until now, is three times larger than had been measured from ground-based readings. Scientists had ignored it for years because they assumed that something that immense and unusual had to be an equipment malfunction.
The satellite data was from 2003-2009 and doesn’t take into account the hydraulic fracking boom in the area in recent years. The methane emissions recorded are likely due to potent leaks as workers pump natural gas out of coal mines. The San Juan Basin is the most active coal-bed methane area in the United States.
The methane hot spot is not a local safety or health issue for residents, but it is 86 times more potent for trapping heat in the short term than carbon dioxide (CO2). According to the EPA, its impact on global warming is over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period. More than a third of the greenhouse gas that the United States produces—some of it from cattle—is methane.
A Fracking Primer
Mora’s Drilling Ban Stays—For Now
In October 2014, the Mora County (NM) Commission voted to maintain its “community rights ordinance,” a first-in-the-country ban on oil and gas drilling that is facing lawsuits from powerful drilling interests. The ban outlaws fracking. The vote may change after Dec. 31, when Commissioner John Olivas leaves office and is replaced with drilling advocate George Trujillo. In San Juan County, Chaco Canyon, a World Heritage Site sacred to Indians of the Southwest, is surrounded by one of the most productive oil and gas basins in the United States. Thanks to new technology, thousands of new wells are possible.
Currently, thousands of companies across the country are in the fracking business, and operate more than one million producing wells across the U.S. The natural-gas boom is providing many jobs and plentiful, low-cost fuel. Today, 33 percent of gas production and 26 percent of oil production emanate from shale resources accessed by fracking. Industry experts estimate that 60-to-80 percent of all new and existing wells drilled will employ fracking to remain viable.
Fracking fluids, including possible and known carcinogens such as arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde, thallium and sulfuric acid, are forced into the ground and surrounding environment with high pressure, breaking through porous rock formations that hold trapped oil and gas. In drought-prone California, state regulators shut down 11 fracking injection wells last July. The state Resource Board says that nearly three billion gallons of wastewater were illegally injected into aquifers used for drinking and farm irrigation. The U.S. fracking fluid market was valued at $18.4 billion in 2012, grew to $26 billion in 2013 and is projected to reach about $37.3 billion in 2018. Because of growing environmental and health concerns, the industry is seeking new fracking fluids that offer both financial and environmentally sustainable benefits.
Environmentalists also cite common methane leakage in fracking. Methane leaks during natural-gas production and distribution. A paper published in April 2014 in the journal Climate Change says that up to 5 percent of the methane from fracking probably escapes into the atmosphere. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, a 50 percent reduction in methane emissions would be equivalent to closing 90 coal-fired power plants. Some say that lowering methane emissions can be done with existing technology at fairly minimal cost.
Another impact of cheap, fracked shale gas is that the massive investment in pipelines and gas-fired power plants disincentivize conversion to clean energy such as solar and wind. Acem Steiner, director of the United Nations’ Environment Programme, has said that the development of shale gas is “a liability” in fighting global warming that could create a 20-to-30-year delay for low- and zero-carbon models.
Judge Orders Water Commission to Reschedule Hearing
In response to a petition by the Sierra Club’s Río Grande Chapter, District Court Judge Sarah Singleton has ordered New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn to conduct a Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) meeting to reschedule a hearing on groundwater-protection rules for the dairy industry.
A statement the Río Grande Chapter released says that “Although 57 percent of New Mexico dairies have polluted groundwater in excess of health standards, Flynn’s Environment Department has not been enforcing a groundwater-protection rule the commission passed in 2011 specifically for the dairy industry. The Environment Department and an industry group calling themselves ‘Dairy Industry Group for a Clean Environment’ have been working together—often barring the public from their discussions—to dismantle the rule’s most important water protections.”
The WQCC had scheduled a hearing on these rule changes to be held in Roswell, ignoring state laws that require a public process and hearing in Santa Fe. “The Environment Department is pandering to the industrial dairies that want the hearing about dismantling the rule to be held in the most sympathetic locale in the state,” said Río Grande Chapter Conservation Coordinator Dan Lorimier. “If they are able to quietly get away with gutting the dairy safeguards and allowing the copper-mining industry to write its own groundwater rule, what protections are the 90 percent of New Mexicans who drink groundwater left with?”
A typical New Mexico dairy produces thousands of gallons of waste daily—as much as a small city. But cities treat their wastewater, while dairies dump untreated, antibiotic-laden waste into gigantic open-air lagoons. The rules agreed upon by all stakeholders—including the dairy-industry group and the Citizens Coalition—required synthetic liners for those lagoons, as well as other protections for drinking water. But the Environment Department has yet to enforce that rule, and many dairies are operating in New Mexico without permits.
Coalition Threatens Lawsuit Over Oil and Gas Leases
In response to last month’s sale of leases on 22,000 acres of Santa Fe National Forest lands for horizontal oil drilling and hydraulic gas fracking, a coalition of local and national conservation groups says it will sue the Bureau of Land Management. The lawsuit cannot be filed until the leases are officially issued. The minimum bid for the leases was $2 per acre. The noncontiguous parcels are in Río Arriba and San Juan counties on the western boundary of the forest north of Cuba, N.M., near the Continental Divide. The federal government also has jurisdiction over mineral rights on Bureau of Indian Affairs and private land on other lease sales that are pending.
“The environmental assessment that the BLM put out for this refused to take a look at any of the environmental and cultural impacts that the oil and gas development might have,” said Kyle Tisdel, attorney and director of the Western Environmental Law Center in Taos. In a press release, Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico energy coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said, “This new lease of the Santa Fe National Forest continues a reckless, lease-everywhere mentality that destroys recreation, wildlife and cultural resources and ignores BLM’s responsibilities to honestly analyze impacts.”
Renewed New Mexico Green Building Credit Proposed
Sustainable building tax credits, first offered in New Mexico in 2007, have helped create jobs and have saved homeowners and commercial building owners money through lower energy and water costs. The tax credits, which are applied against a homeowner’s income taxes, have provided a measurable incentive during tough economic times. The $4 million state tax credit offered to builders of homes that are at least 40 percent more energy-efficient has run out, although there is a backlog of builders and homeowners who have applied for it. $1 million is still currently available for commercial and multifamily structures.
Sen. Peter Wirth and Rep. Carl Trujillo have been working with builders to draft bills they can sponsor in the 2015 state Legislature that would extend the tax credit, double the cap, increase energy-efficiency requirements for qualifying buildings (which include some manufactured homes), and add water conservation as a feature that qualifies for the credit.