Last week, NASA released a follow-up study on its 2014 report that exposed a huge methane hotspot looming over the Four Corners. In the original report, NASA did not know what was causing this highly unusual density of methane pollution. The agency’s latest report drilled deeper to find the source of the pollution: the oil and gas industry.
When NASA’s original study came out in 2014 the oil and gas industry immediately went on the defensive. They claimed that pollution came primarily from natural sources and landfills. But the updated study identifies 250 point sources, including well pads, storage tanks, pipelines and gas processing plants. Together, these sites account for half of the pollution causing the hotspot. Moreover, the worst 25 sites are alone responsible for a quarter of the overall pollution, and 24 of those sites are oil- and gas-related. In short, the oil and gas industry is a major polluter contributing to the methane hotspot in the Four Corners.
As soon as the NASA report was released I headed to the center of it all: Aztec. There, I met up with local organizers from Diné CARE and the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club to see if we could find the pollution pinpointed in the study using Earthworks’ infrared gas-finding camera. Our infrared camera is the same model used by the oil and gas industry and environmental regulators to detect methane and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) associated with oil and gas production, including known carcinogens such as benzene, toluene, and xylene.
I have been to the area several times before with our infrared camera, and every time I have found substantial pollution from oil and gas facilities. In fact, we find pollution at most of the sites we visit. Our focus this time, however, was to visit the sites mentioned in the study. One of the points on the map is a row of gas facilities: compressors, conditioning plants, and a power plant just south of Aztec with dozens of sources emitting large amounts of volatile organic compounds and hydrocarbons, including methane, as NASA confirmed.
Another site we visited was a series of three different well pads just east of Aztec. All three of these pads were leaking methane and VOCs. One site had four leaks which we could see wafting pollution almost 10 feet into the air in the camera’s viewfinder. Because these sites are largely unregulated, methane leaks such as these are not uncommon among the 300-plus sites Earthworks has visited nationally.
The NASA study, as well as our ground-truthing journey, reminds us that methane pollution from oil and gas production in the U.S., and specifically the Four Corners, is having a global impact on our climate. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 87 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. And methane pollution from oil and gas facilities carries other pollutants with it. Local health impacts from oil and gas pollution range from nosebleeds and nausea to asthma and long-term medical problems.
But there is hope. The Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules, finalized this spring, will help reduce methane and associated pollution from new and modified oil and gas facilities. The Bureau of Land Management is also considering methane reduction rules for federally administered oil and gas development. However, strong rules for existing sources like the ones we visited are paramount – and the EPA and BLM have the power to create sensible standards to rein in this out-of-control industry.
Ultimately, methane pollution reduction — particularly from existing sources — will make a notable dent in the climate footprint of the oil and gas industry. But beyond that, the only long-term solution to the climate crisis is to keep fossil fuels in the ground.