By now, many people have seen the disturbing image that NASA released in October, showing the giant methane hotspot in the atmosphere over the Four Corners region in the southwestern United States. As alarming as the methane cloud is, I sometimes find it hard to register the reality behind the computer graphic, or grasp its full meaning. When I look up at the sky I can’t see the methane. The dangerous effects of the cloud are very slow to reveal themselves, and we will gradually feel its effects as the potent greenhouse gas affects the climate. But nonetheless it’s there; scientists first saw it five years ago.
And we know why it’s there. For years, natural gas development in the San Juan Basin of New Mexico has been releasing methane into the atmosphere. Now that oil development has ramped up as well, and is set to expand in the region with new and renewed leases, methane will continue to be vented or flared off at well sites, further polluting the once pristine air of northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, southern Utah and southern Colorado, as well as in other areas stretching northward into North Dakota.
As a Latino from a long family line in the region, it infuriates me to know that this disaster is in the making around our homes, and affecting everything we love about the clean air and delicate ecosystems in these mountains and high deserts. Think about it this way; how would you feel if a stranger walked into your house, turned up the gas and then stared you straight in the face, shrugging his shoulders, and expecting you to do nothing but pay the higher cost. The methane release is dangerous, it’s wasteful, and it’s happening all around the West.
In these coldest months, many of us become very aware of the cost of natural gas to heat our homes. We come up with ingenious schedules for adjusting the thermostat; we double up on blankets and sweaters, and sometimes close off entire rooms. And all the while, as we engage in these necessary conservation habits, energy companies are releasing millions of cubic feet of natural gas into the air. According to a recent report by Taxpayers for Common Sense, from 2006 to 2013 enough gas was released to supply the entire state of New York for a year.
Culturally, and fiscally, many Latinos are raised with the idea that conservation is, and should be, a part of everyday life. Even when it comes to hunting and fishing, there is often a blurry line between recreation and subsistence- use what you take, take only what you can use. The waste that is occurring in the oil and gas fields throughout the west flies in the face of everything that we have learned from our grandparents and practice for our children.
Latino attitudes about oil and gas development clearly reflect our general attitudes about conservation. According to a recent poll conducted by HECHO and Latino Decisions, 71% of Latinos surveyed in New Mexico, and 82% in Colorado favor requiring that oil and gas developers pay royalties on the gas that gets used or wasted. Oil and gas development is not only leaking gas, it is leaking money – companies are not presently required to pay royalties on the gas that is wasted or claimed as “beneficial use” in their operations. In the past seven years, $380 million of potential revenue has been lost on public lands as a result of this “royalty relief.”
We don’t have to stand idly by while the gas is turned up. We should continue to demand that agencies and the administration implement regulatory tools and require technological improvements that will reduce the pollution and waste. Earlier this month, the Western Governors’ Association approved a resolution asserting that states’ interests be considered in federal regulations over methane production. It’s a good sign that the resolution expresses interest in controlling waste and pollution
In the coming year, we may see some regulatory action. The Bureau of Land Management is reviewing a new rule that could require royalties on vented and flared gas, as well as require recapture technologies that could reduce methane releases as much as 40%. That recaptured methane could then be processed and sold. The BLM needs to implement the rule quickly. In the last year alone, applications for permits to vent and flare natural gas have increased threefold, mostly in New Mexico and North Dakota. Even so, the BLM has recently delayed release of the proposed rule from this month until April 15, 2015, with actual implementation of a final rule one year later.
Knowing that resources are being wasted – some literally going up in smoke, and knowing that the sheer amount of waste is adding to the greenhouse gas problem and pollution in general, it should seem apparent to any reasonable person, that delays are costly. We can’t afford any more.