You can’t see it when gazing up at the southwestern sky, but our community lies under one of the largest concentrations of methane pollution in the country.
Using satellite and ground-monitoring technology, NASA discovered an ominous red cloud of methane – caused in large part by oil and gas drilling – in the Four Corners.
The invisibility of this looming issue to the naked eye is what makes it so dangerous. It is easily ignored. Unfortunately, the invisible is becoming urgent, illuminating that we can no longer ignore methane leaks and neither can our policy makers.
Methane pollution is dangerous for multiple reasons: it threatens our air quality, worsens climate change, and is a waste of taxpayer resources.
In terms of air pollution, when methane leaks into the atmosphere, so do other chemicals and carcinogens that worsen asthma and other respiratory problems and pose a threat to our public health.
Methane is also a powerful greenhouse gas that causes climate change, and is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide for the first two decades it’s in the air. This strikes close to home as our neighbors and communities are feeling the impacts of climate change as evidenced by our tough summer here with the 416 Fire and Burro Fire.
While drought and wildfires are part of living in the West, climate change is making these disasters larger and more frequent. We need all hands on deck to protect our communities and the mountains and rivers that drew our families here in the first place.
And methane pollution from venting and flaring of oil and natural gas wells is actually natural gas that could have been used for power. When oil companies release methane pollution into the air, they are wasting natural resources from our public lands that belong to all of us.
For years, community members in Southwest Colorado have been speaking out to support state- and nation-wide rules to cut methane waste. Local residents, farmers, elected leaders, and business owners submitted public comments, held rallies, and attended hearings near and far.
Thankfully, stakeholders came together over the last few years to ask our government to implement common-sense methane rules to address the thousands of tons of natural gas wasted each year by reducing venting, flaring, and leaks.
The Bureau of Land Management created a rule that cuts methane waste on public lands, while the Environmental Protection Agency made rules that covered emissions from new oil and gas development. These were huge victories, protecting our air, saving taxpayers money, cutting waste, and mitigating climate change.
Yet the Trump administration continues aggressive attempts to weaken these rules. Two weeks ago, the EPA officially proposed weakening its methane standards, which have been reducing pollution from 36,000 wells across the country – the equivalent of taking 115,600 cars off the road for a year.
And, just last week, the BLM announced that, despite receiving 600,000 public comments for it, the agency is gutting its methane rule that applies to our public lands.
More than 75 percent of western voters support rules to reduce methane waste, according to the bipartisan 2018 State of the Rockies Poll.
The question is: Why is the Trump administration steamrolling Western communities?
If left alone, these rules could have been incredibly effective – just look at Colorado.
In 2014, Colorado became the first state to address methane pollution through innovative air quality policies with the support of major oil and gas producers.
A recent report from the Associated Press found that oil and gas companies in Colorado have repaired 73,000 leaks since 2015, when the policy was established, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that the number of leaks declined by 75 percent in the state’s largest oil and gas producing basin within two years.
Colorado’s methane policies won’t be affected by changes at the federal level. But in the Four Corners, we know air pollution doesn’t stop at state borders.
In spite of Colorado’s common-sense policies, the methane hot spot continues to loom above us, and this year the American Lung Association gave La Plata County an “F” rating for ozone. Both of these pollutants are bolstered by oil and gas operations in neighboring states.
While states such as Colorado have led the charge, federal leadership is critical in tackling regional issues affecting our air, our health, and our climate.
While the fate of the BLM methane rule will certainly be decided in the courts, we have one final period to make our voices heard on it. Once the watered-down rules are published in the Federal Register, there will be a 60-day public comment period.
We should all demand that the Trump administration stand up for our health and our environment, not corporate donors and special interests. Please join me.
Lisa Pool is the Southwest Field Organizer for Conservation Colorado, the largest statewide environmental advocacy organization. She lives and works in Durango.