Cleaning up the gas field
Washington hands down stricter drilling rules

by Will Sands

The San Juan Basin could be taking on a greener hue in coming years. Kinder and gentler oil and gas extraction may be in store for the region, courtesy a series of new stringent regulations trickling down from Washington, D.C.

The Four Corners region possesses one of the richest oil and gas reserves in the world, and that status is in no danger of going away. The San Juan Basin, which stretches from Durango into Northwest New Mexico, has been one of the U.S.’ major sources of coalbed methane since the 1980s. More than 20,000 oil and gas wells already pepper the region, and new data hints at potential for substantial natural gas development in the future.

Nearby Northwest New Mexico has been in the midst of a mega-boom in new wells and permitting. On the flip side, the area has reportedly suffered from some of the laxest Bureau of Land Management policies anywhere in the nation.

“The Farmington region has been a one-stop-shop for the natural gas industry,” said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “Approximately 97 percent of our BLM land is leased down here, and all of this drilling is coming at the expense of our other resources.”

A recent Western Organization of Resource Councils report noted that the Farmington office of the BLM has been turning a blind eye to natural gas extraction. In 2007, the land managers completed just 82 of their required 1,257 inspections, barely 6 percent of the mandated number. In addition, the lack of oversight came on the heels of the same office’s approval of 12,500 new wells.

“We’re getting slammed down here, and nobody is taking the time to regulate drillers or safeguard the environment,” Eisenfeld added. “The fact is that the emphasis should no longer be on developing new wells in the San Juan Basin. We need to clean up the mess that’s already here.”

The San Juan Basin and the rest of the nation could be in for more government oversight, however. Last week, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced several reforms that the BLM will undertake to improve protections for land, water and wildlife, and reduce potential conflicts between industry and landowners.

“The previous administration’s ‘anywhere, anyhow’ policy on oil and gas development ran afoul of communities, carved up the landscape, and fueled costly conflicts that created uncertainty for investors and industry,” Salazar said during the announcement.

Promising a “fresh look,” he unveiled a series of new regulations modeled loosely on Colorado’s stringent standards adopted in 2009. Among the reforms are greater public involvement; enhanced review and consideration of individual lease sales; and an emphasis on leasing in already-developed areas.

“The damage is already done in Northwest New Mexico,” Eisenfeld said. “But these new regulations should be an important step toward seeing that our public lands are managed for more than just natural resource extraction.”

Right on the heels of Salazar’s announcement, the Environmental Protection Agency dealt another blow to drilling when it proposed tougher standards for ground level ozone. Ozone, or smog, has been tied to emissions from natural gas compressors, and the San Juan Basin has been flirting with nonattainment status for years. The agency has proposed lowering the ozone standards to between .06 and .07 parts per million, a drop from the current Bush Administration number of .075 ppm.

“We will be out of attainment if the ozone standard goes into that range,” Eisenfeld said. “This will affect Southwest Colorado as well as Northwest New Mexico. It’s time for agencies to take a hard look at reality before just going out and saying, ‘Our air quality is fine in the Four Corners.’”

The oil and gas industry got even more bad news in December, when San Juan Citizens Alliance and WildEarth Guardians reached a settlement with the EPA to limit pollution from oil and gas drilling. The groups alleged that current regulations have not kept pace with science and technology and have failed to limit emissions of several toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases. The settlement secured a commitment from the EPA to review and update the regulations. Diminishing air quality in the Four Corners provided part of the inspiration for the suit.

“Oil and gas drilling poses myriad threats to public health and welfare,” said Robin Cooley, an attorney with Earthjustice, who argued the case. “It’s time to ensure it does not come at the expense of our prosperity.”

However, prosperity is precisely what the new regulations will impact, according to the oil and gas industry. Energy companies allege that the new standards will only create new hurdles and hinder economically viable development of a public resource. Colorado’s new regulations have offered a glimpse of that future, according to Christi Zeller, of the La Plata County Energy Council. Zeller, who heads the industry-advocate nonprofit, pointed to fewer permits, slower drilling and less economic stimulus in Colorado over the past year.

“Industry does not have a problem with new regulations as long as they’re science based,” she said. “But the new rules have definitely hurt Colorado. That’s why we’re looking at fiscal problems locally and statewide this year. We’re seeing an exodus as operators go to Wyoming, Utah and Texas.”

Zeller added that La Plata County operators are committed to responsible development of the resource and to following the rules. “We’re here in La Plata County trying to follow and comply with all the regulations, whether they be local, state or federal,” she said. “We can’t forget that the American people own mineral interests. We shouldn’t let any one group prevent us from developing your and my minerals.”

Colorado Senate Republican Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, echoed Zeller’s concerns and blasted Salazar for trying to take Colorado’s rules onto the national stage.

“Punitive restrictions on this important industry have already caused devastating job losses in my hometown,” he said. “Why on Earth would Secretary Salazar want to take Colorado’s job-killing rules national?”

However, Eisenfeld dismissed these claims as ludicrous, saying it is past time for industry to clean up its act. “The oil and gas industry is held to outdated standards,” he said. “All you need to do is take a look around the Four Corners. We’re a perfect example of a place where no enforcement has occurred. It’s time for the agencies to step up and see that operators are playing by the rules.”



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