Carlsbad’s Kayley Shoup fears that when oil is scarce, so are respiratory and reproductive problems, along with cancer.
She is an organizer of Citizens Caring for the Future, a grassroots environmental group that has recently begun trying to piece together the correlation between high fossil fuel development and health issues.
Data shows that polluting emissions like methane and volatile organic compounds peak when oil and gas production increases, and with the Permian Basin leading US fossil fuel production, the problem could worsen after Russia invades Ukraine.
The world’s second-largest oil producer, after the United States, Russia’s actions have led to almost unanimous condemnation from world leaders and the withdrawal of the Eastern European nation from the world market.
The price of oil soared into triple digits in the weeks that followed, and gasoline prices soared above $4 a gallon across New Mexico and the country.
Prices rise when demand is high, and that higher demand could mean more mining in Shoup’s Permian Basin home region — and more air pollution.
“It’s heartbreaking to live here in this area,” she said. “I find it quite depressing. It seems like the area is being exploited. These big corporations are coming into our community and taking a lot more away from us than they are giving us.
“They create systemic problems.”
Shoup said his concerns, while troubling, were substantiated by a recent Stanford University study showing that nearly 10% of the gas produced by fossil fuel development on the New Mexico side of the Permian is emitted into atmosphere, polluting the air people breathe.
“You know they’re astronomical and it’s nice to see them in concrete form,” she said of the shows. “It’s good that we’re getting a more accurate picture.”
A ‘more accurate’ picture of the environmental impact of oil and gas
The study released Wednesday used several aircraft equipped with surveillance technology that flew over the area in 2018 and 2019, a year of record production growth.
They flew over oil and gas operations throughout the basin, calculating emissions from 90% of well sites, pipelines and other infrastructure throughout the region,
Evan Sherwin, postdoctoral researcher in energy resources engineering and co-author of the research, said the results were surprising.
He said the planes, used in a partnership with Kairos Aerospace, flew over each site about four times, tracking about 2,000 emissions from about 1,000 sources.
Calculations showed a loss rate of around 9.4%, meaning that a fraction of the natural gas produced in the region was released into the air.
The main component of the gas, methane, is a potent greenhouse gas, with about 25 to 30 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, Sherwin said, or 80% higher on a 20-year scale.
Some of the locations surveyed in the study were emitting up to 10 tonnes of methane per hour, he said.
The study did not include the names of the operators emitting the air pollution, Sherwin said, but found that energy companies were releasing more pollutants than previously thought.
“This is a very high loss rate compared to other estimates we’ve seen for the Permian Basin. There are several reasons to think this was a particularly high emission time,” Sherwin said. “In 2019, there was rapid growth especially for oil. The prices were very low. The normal profit incentives to capture this gas were very weak.
New Mexico calls for pollution controls, but is it enough?
Sherwin said he hopes recently enacted state regulations will incentivize operators to capture more gas.
Last year, New Mexico’s Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources (EMNRD) – through its Division of Petroleum Conservation – enacted a new policy requiring operators to capture 98 % of gas produced by 2026.
Separate regulation by the New Mexico Department of Environment (NMED) is underway to increase leak reporting and repair, targeting volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which create carcinogenic ground-level ozone.
“The regulations hadn’t come into effect yet,” Sherwin said of 2019. “Operators are probably planning for this and have hopefully reduced emissions accordingly.”
But even though the REMDR regulations, as well as the policy banning routine flaring – the burning of natural gas – have taken effect since the data was collected, Shoup said she saw little difference the along US Highway 285, a major oil and gas artery that connects Carlsbad to Artesia.
The roadside is still littered with flares, Shoup said, bringing a host of health and social issues to the community.
And emissions from neighboring Texas, unregulated by new New Mexico policies, could be of even greater concern, Shoup said, because his hometown is only about an hour’s drive from the state line.
That means the federal government should step in, she said, to put in place stricter emissions controls that apply to all states through the US Environmental Protection Agency.
“I don’t feel like there’s been a ton of change in regards to ongoing flaring. It underscores that the EPA needs to take action and ban routine flaring at the federal level,” said Shoup said “We’re right on the border with Texas and we’re suffering from their emissions as well.”
“It’s a whole different ball game out there. It’s important that the feds step in for states like New Mexico.”
An economic incentive to capture oil and gas emissions
As well as regulatory pressure for more gas capture, he said investors are also tending to put more emphasis on environmental performance, as calls from the scientific community to reduce climate change have become increasingly serious in recent times. years.
“The investment community is also interested in companies having higher environmental, social and governance (ESG) ratings,” Sherwin said. “They really want to know that these companies have their emissions under control.”
Capturing the gas as a salable commodity could also prove lucrative, he said, even for smaller operators, with many industry leaders fearful of being squeezed out of the sector by new regulations as the cost of compliance was rising.
“If operators take action now, they will be able to reduce costs in the future,” Sherwin said. “Smallholders could be in better shape than they would be if they didn’t take these steps.
“I hope operators will take these results as a sign that they have these very powerful tools at their disposal. There are many ways for the industry to find these very important emissions and report them for repair. These repairs can really pay off, even just for income.
Yuanlei Chen, a Stanford doctoral student and co-author of the study, said the research should encourage operators to fix leaks quickly, retrofit valves and do what they can to reduce air pollution. .
“Air-detectable point sources, including a surprisingly large number of pipeline point sources, account for the vast majority of total methane emissions in the study area,” Chen said. “These point sources come from a small fraction of facilities in the region and present great opportunities for methane mitigation.”
Chen said reducing methane emissions is one of the most “cost-effective” ways for oil companies to reduce their environmental impact, and the use of planes – which could be shared by small operators – will ensure a better precision.
“Finding and fixing large emission sources quickly is important for reducing methane emissions,” Chen said. “Regular aerial screening presents a low-cost and accurate approach to identifying high-consequence sources, although current ground-based monitoring approaches are still important for smaller emissions.
“Reducing methane emissions is often one of the most cost-effective ways for oil and gas companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
The economics of air pollution could become even bigger as the United States is set to see another surge in oil and gas production following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
The conflict has exacerbated the need for tighter regulation, Shoup said, and a potential shift away from the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.
“There has to be a managed downturn at some point,” Shoup said. “We know that this development leads to more emissions. I fear that many new developments are justified by what is happening in the world.
“With the new demand for oil linked to the situation in Russia, I fear that the Permian will become the sacrificial lamb for the energy needs of the world.”