DENVER – Four Corners residents spoke in Denver on Wednesday, highlighting health concerns stemming from a methane hot spot in the Southwest.
The comments were offered at a hearing by the Environmental Protection Agency, as federal regulators consider national standards around curbing methane emissions. EPA listening sessions were also scheduled in Dallas on Wednesday and in Pittsburgh on Sept. 29.
The Four Corners hot spot has been in the spotlight of the methane debate since researchers identified a significant methane plume in the region. A team of scientists is currently investigating the cause of the concentration, which could stem from a combination of natural-gas exploration and natural occurrences.
Those supportive of the EPA’s effort to curb methane emissions said the Four Corners plume serves as an example of the urgency of the situation. They spoke of health concerns related to asthma and other respiratory conditions, as well as preserving historic treasures, such as the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwest New Mexico, about 105 miles south of Durango.
Methane strongly absorbs infrared radiation, much more so than carbon dioxide, which adds to climate change.
“You look at the methane plume and that data precedes even the fracking boom,” said Camilla Feibelman, with the Sierra Club in New Mexico. “Add on top of that just the incredible proliferation of oil and gas in the Four Corners area.”
The EPA’s rulemaking stems from an initiative by President Barack Obama to slow climate change. The goal is to cut methane emissions from the oil-and-gas sector by at least 40 percent from 2012 levels. The anticipated deadline for the reduction is 2025.
Much of the focus is on capturing emissions from hydraulic fracturing. Regulators hope to yield a 95-percent reduction in volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are organic chemicals that evaporate into the surrounding air.
Those in the industry pointed to voluntary efforts by companies to capture methane emissions, suggesting that burdensome regulations would actually discourage production of cleaner natural gas.
“The EPA’s proposed regulation would impose significant new costs at a time when energy companies are already suffering from a difficult commodity market,” Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Petroleum Association, told EPA officials.
The EPA estimates the new rule would cost the industry anywhere from $320 million to $420 million annually by 2025.
Korby Bracken, director of environmental health and safety for Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, suggested that voluntary capturing methods are working without federal interference. The industry points out that it is a benefit to them to capture methane since leaks can result in lost revenue.
“As a result of voluntary practices, the natural-gas industry has dramatically decreased methane emissions while increasing production, to the point now that we are exporting natural gas,” Bracken said.
Industry stakeholders believe the EPA should leave it to the states, pointing to Colorado’s statewide effort at methane regulation. Many of the proposals mirror regulations already in place in Colorado, thanks to rulemaking in 2014, such as requiring well operators to find and repair leaks using infrared cameras.
Some feel the EPA proposal doesn’t go far enough, pointing out that Colorado’s rule included existing operations, while the EPA rule would extend only to new wells and operations. EPA officials said they don’t have the authority to create a rule for existing operations.
Environmentalists held a rally outside the EPA’s Denver office, claiming “leaking methane and toxic chemicals are causing cancer and asthma attacks.” For Elliott Jim, a Farmington resident who suffers from asthma and loves biking, the methane regulations couldn’t come fast enough.