New Mexico's top oil and natural gas regulator said a giant cloud of the greenhouse gas methane hanging over the Southwestern United States comes in large part from natural seeps from underground formations and coal mining operations, disputing recent scientific findings.
At a confirmation hearing Wednesday, acting New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Kenley McQueen said the methane hot spot over the Four Corners region of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah dates back millions of years.
"My personal opinion is that the methane hotspot in the San Juan-Four Corners area has existed for at least the last 10 million years," said McQueen, describing methane-infused coal outcroppings on the western edge of the San Juan Basin.
The former oil and natural gas company executive believes a NASA survey of the methane cloud and its sources missed the "larger contributions" of methane from coal-seam outcroppings and coal mining. Methane, a key component of natural gas, has potent heat-trapping properties in the short-term when released into the atmosphere.
Researchers with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology traced the methane hot spot to sources including natural gas wells, storage tanks, pipelines and processing plants. They said only a handful of 250 methane sources were natural seeps from underground formations, and one was from a vent in a coal mine, in findings published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study identified the sources with spectrometers aboard aircraft that flew 3,000 to 10,000 feet above the ground over about 1,200 square miles in the Four Corners in April 2015. Evidence of the Delaware-sized hot spot dates as far back as 2003, and a satellite image released in 2014 showed it in vivid color.
McQueen said the NASA survey of the methane hot spot was not comprehensive.
"Had they flown the entire basin I think they would have found that the larger contributions of methane were coming from the outcrop as well as the coal mining operations that are being conducted on the western periphery of the outcrop in support of the two electrical generation stations that are there," McQueen said. "It's been exposed and in my opinion it's the largest component of the methane contamination that was identified by NASA."
Environmentalists vigorously disputed McQueen's take on the source of methane.
Ben Shelton, legislative and political director for Conservation Voters New Mexico, called the claims "patently false."
"The sound science says that industrial production is the foremost source," he said. "No less than 50 percent of methane in the hot spot is coming from industrial point sources."
McQueen previously served as vice president of Tulsa, Oklahoma-based natural gas and oil producer WPX Energy, and once managed the company's assets in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico and southern Colorado.
States are being left on their own to calculate methane emissions at oil and gas operations after the Environmental Protection Agency this month withdrew an Obama-era request that drillers provide emissions data.
At the same time, Republicans in Congress are seeking to overturn an Obama administration rule that sought to reduce harmful methane emissions into the environment. The Interior Department rule finalized in November had clamped down on oil companies that burn off natural gas during drilling operations on public lands.
Republican New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez warned that royalties paid to the state, which is struggling to solve a budget crisis, will decrease and development will stagnate thanks to the federal methane rule. Leading Democratic state lawmakers say the rule can increased royalties and create jobs through efforts to avoid leaks and flaring.
McQueen blamed the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for much of the flaring of natural gas on the other side of the state, in the Permian Basin of southeastern New Mexico. He said the "predominant reason" for flaring in the area is a backlog of right of way applications from natural gas companies who want to extend pipelines from drilling operations.
BLM Spokeswoman Donna Hummel said the agency's Carlsbad office has processed 1,000 right of way applications in the past year, but the number of applications is surging.
"We certainly understand how important pipelines and their rights of way are for transporting all oil and natural gas products to market," she said. "Despite the BLM's productivity, the demand for rights of way is still higher and increasing."
McQueen's appointment was confirmed by the New Mexico Senate later in the day Wednesday.