EPA says NM methane down, but some question data

Oct 23, 2018

Kevin Robinson-Avila | Albuquerque Journal | October 19, 2018

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says methane emissions from oil and gas operations in New Mexico’s Permian and San Juan basins dropped by 6 percent between 2016 and 2017, although environmentalists dispute the accuracy of EPA data collection.

Total emissions fell by nearly 830,000 metric tons, according to the EPA’s greenhouse gas reporting program. That lowered overall releases in both basins from a combined 13.78 metric tons in 2016 to 12.95 metric tons last year.

The Permian in southeastern New Mexico accounted for the lion’s share. Emissions there fell by 728,000 metric tons, compared with a 100,000-metric-ton decline in the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico.

Industry representatives say that demonstrates producer success in reducing methane venting and leaking.

“The facts themselves demonstrate that methane emissions are plummeting even as production in New Mexico is climbing,” said New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Ryan Flynn. “Environmental groups say heavy-handed government regulations are needed to control methane emissions, but that story is betrayed by the facts.”

Environmentalists, though, question the EPA’s data collection process. The Western Environmental Law Center, for example, says statistics compiled by the state Oil Conservation Division from monthly reports it receives from local operators shows methane emissions from venting and flaring increased by 18 percent from January-July of 2018 compared with the same period last year.

The state data came from an inspection of public records request filed this summer with the OCD, said Law Center senior policy adviser Thomas Singer.

Flynn said the EPA’s latest statistics are more accurate than in the past, when that agency focused only on natural gas extraction. In contrast, the EPA’s new data include releases from gathering and processing operations as well, providing comparable statistics over two consecutive years.

“It’s the most comprehensive data set now available,” Flynn said. “These numbers aren’t generated by industry, but by the U.S. government.”

Still, the EPA may be missing a lot of information from small operations that aren’t included in its data collection, said Jon Goldstein, regulatory and legislative affairs director for the Environmental Defense Fund.

“The EPA captures data from the biggest emitters, but it’s missing smaller ones that cumulatively add up,” Goldstein said. “EPA data is also based on modeling estimates of things like leaks that are outdated and don’t reflect what’s happening in the real world.”

A peer-reviewed report published in the Journal Science last June said real emissions may be 60 percent higher than EPA estimates.

“The data reported to EPA does show a drop,” said David McCabe, senior scientist with the Clean Air Task Force in Washington, D.C. “But we know these studies consistently underestimate methane emissions from oil and gas by large factors, so it’s not clear that the small drop in reported methane is meaningful.”

Meanwhile, a simultaneous increase in flaring, or burning, of methane in the Permian is also raising carbon dioxide emissions, offsetting the drop in methane releases. Flaring in the Permian led to a 680,000-ton increase in CO2 emissions last year, according to the Clean Air Task Force.