Air pollution over Carlsbad is visible from space, according to a recent study, and environmentalists blamed the fossil fuel industry’s presence in the Permian Basin region of southeast New Mexico for the growing problem.
A cloud of methane about 2 miles long was discovered by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) southeast of Carlsbad, via its Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) mission.
The mission was intended to study the presence of airborne minerals across Earth’s deserts, but NASA scientists found the project also detected multiple methane plumes throughout the world, including the cloud above the Carlsbad area.
Scientists also identified 50 “super-emitters” of methane across the southwestern U.S., Central Asia and the Middle East, with 12 plumes stretching up to 20 miles east of Hazar, Turkmenistan and another 3 miles long south of Tehran, Iran.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas (GHG), posing a global warming potential at least 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide (CO2), according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
It is the second-most abundant greenhouse gas in the Earth’s atmosphere after CO2, the EPA reported, accounting for more than 20 percent of global GHG emissions.
In New Mexico, methane emissions are largely driven by oil and gas operations, according to the New Mexico Environment Department, which the EPA lists as a top source globally along with livestock and landfills.
Jeremy Nichols with Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians said the recently discovered methane plume near Carlsbad was tied to fossil fuel operations in the region.
“It didn’t just come out of nowhere,” he said. “It must be tied to some kind of oil and gas development. There are companies behind this.”
The latest discovery followed another plume found by NASA in 2014 over the Four Corners region in northwest New Mexico’s San Juan Basin oil and gas fields. That methane “hotspot” was also tied to oil and gas, along with coal-fired power production.
Nichols said air pollution appeared to be getting worse in the Permian which, like the San Juan, hosts extraction operations that the State of New Mexico struggled to oversee.
The New Mexico Environment Department this year enacted new regulations on oil and gas air pollution emissions, aimed at tightening requirements for leak detection and repair and for reporting emission events.
That rulemaking came after last year’s regulations imposed by the State’s Oil Conservation Division, requiring operators capture 98 percent of produced gas by 2026.
Amid the new regulations, oil and gas operations continued to be permitted at an alarming rate, Nichols said, and the sheer volume of subsequent pollution could be too much for the state’s regulatory agencies to mitigate.
“We have all these new rules in effect, but this shows that compliance is still really an issue,” he said. “They are a real challenge to the general industry culture of looking the other way. It’s the way business is done, and that business is becoming not acceptable.”
The oil and gas industry did take steps of its own to reduce pollution despite expanding operations in the Permian, said Joe Vigil, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association – the state’s largest fossil fuel trade association which represents hundreds of oil companies.
He said companies are using new monitoring technologies like aircraft sensors and gas-capture technologies to reduce their impacts on the environment, which have reduced emissions as most operators in the state, Vigil said, are capturing about 90 percent of produced gas.
“Through both voluntary efforts and in response to new regulations, New Mexico’s oil and gas industry has been making great strides in reducing methane emissions,” Vigil said. “Operators are using airplane flyover surveys, ground-based monitoring systems, and other technologies as they seek to improve its emissions performance.”
Vigil argued that emergency emissions events do happen and are permitted by the State’s new rules, such as when a well becomes highly pressurized during operations.
He said the plume NASA found over Carlsbad could be such an incident, and that the NASA study can help the industry identify and fix such sources as they occur.
“This image could be related to such an emergency that would be resolved quickly,” Vigil said. “NASA’s new tool adds one more tool to an already impressive toolkit that operators use to quickly identify and respond to unintended natural gas releases.”
And fossil fuels produced in New Mexico and the U.S. are brought to market under some the world’s strictest environment regulations, Vigil argued, pointing to larger methane plumes found in the Middle East – another large source of the world’s oil and gas supply.
“If oil is going to be consumed, it will be produced somewhere,” Vigil said. “Why not produce that vital energy here in New Mexico where it is produced cleaner and supports our public services that enhance the lives of all New Mexicans.”
But Jon Goldstein with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) said heightened air pollution in the Permian Basin area was a long-term problem that went beyond incidental releases.
He said the EDF studied emissions in the region for the past three years, pointing to a systemic issue and the Fund’s research showed emissions to be three times higher than EPA estimates.
Malfunctioning flares, where excess gas is burned, and aging, low-producing wells produce about half of those emissions, Goldstein said, meaning the problem also extends to newer facilities installed during the recent boom in production.
“The Permian Basin is the nation’s most prolific oil field and unfortunately, also the largest source of oil and gas methane emissions,” Goldstein said.
He advocated for stronger federal rules at the EPA, which was expected to release new, nationwide requirements this year, as much of New Mexico’s air pollution could also be coming from neighboring Texas’ portion of the Permian.
“Air pollution doesn’t stop at the state line and we need a strong and level federal playing field to ensure New Mexicans are protected from pollution blowing over from Texas,” Goldstein.
In the meantime, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the recent discovery could help provide better data for government agencies and operators alike to find the sources of air pollution so they can be mitigated and begin to address the perceived global climate crisis.
“Reining in methane emissions is key to limiting global warming,” Nelson said. “This exciting new development will not only help researchers better pinpoint where methane leaks are coming from, but also provide insight on how they can be addressed – quickly.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.