Opinion: Methane waste may be invisible, but its impacts are all-too obvious

Methane waste may be invisible, but its impacts are all-too obvious
By Lisa DeVille

When the Trump administration suspended long-overdue updates of regulations on preventing methane waste and limiting wasteful flaring of natural gas last month, it was a slap in the face for all of us who live on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in Manderee, N.D.

The Bureau of Land Management’s Waste Prevention Rule would have required companies drilling on public and tribal lands to reduce the leaking, venting or flaring of natural gas through maintenance of equipment and use of proven technologies. This is a rule that my community fought for because we experience the impacts of methane pollution daily.

The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is surrounded by nearly 1,000 oil and gas wells that make the unceasing extraction of the resources beneath our land hard to escape. The air smells like rotten eggs, the noise disrupts our lives and the gas flares make our night skies look like bright summer days.

But even with all the evidence of pollution, I did not fully understand the severity of the problem until I stood next to a gas well with an infrared camera in 2016.

Giant plumes of methane leak into the atmosphere unseen. As an environmental student, climate activist and a Manderee resident, witnessing the extent of the methane leakage across my community left me speechless.

This is why I joined a lawsuit to stop the Trump administration from willfully polluting our community and wasting our resources. The lawsuit challenges the authority of the administration to suspend the rule without adequate public process and in defiance of its legal obligation to take all reasonable precautions to prevent waste of publicly owned oil and gas.

Frack site on Ft Berthold Indian Reservation. Photo credit: Bruce Farnsworth

Studies have shown that flaring, venting and leaking of methane and natural gas cause increased risks of asthma, respiratory infections, cancer and neurological damage. We have experienced several of these impacts firsthand as oil and gas activity has increased exponentially over the last decade on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Though we are told that we live a safe distance from the drilling, our family’s medical tests mirror those of the drillers themselves.

They get paid to take that health risk. We don’t.

I also worry about the impact of methane pollution on the planet. Methane, a greenhouse gas that is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, is the second-largest contributor to human-caused climate change.

The suspension of the rule hurts our pocketbooks, too. Between 2009 and 2014, oil and gas on public and tribal lands vented, flared and leaked about 375 billion feet of natural gas – enough to supply over 5 million homes a year. According to BLM’s own calculations, suspending the Waste Prevention Rule will increase methane emissions by 175,000 tons over the next year and result in the waste of 9 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

Each year, the industry loses hundreds of millions of dollars worth of natural gas due to venting on federal and tribal lands alone. And the fact that companies don’t have to pay royalties on the gas they waste means that without the Waste Prevention Rule in place, taxpayers will lose out on millions of dollars in revenue every year.

This could be invested in schools, health care, drug treatment programs and so much more.

The Government Accountability Office found in 2010 that 40 percent of the natural gas vented and flared on federal lands could be captured cheaply with technology that was already available. The oil and gas industry is simply resistant for the sake of it. It’s only logical that a nearly 40-year-old rule should be updated to reflect technological advances.

We need stringent controls on methane pollution. We need monitoring, testing and studies that explain the environmental and human health impacts of exposure. The 2016 Waste Prevention Rule promised all that. The Interior Department’s move to suspend the rule is nothing but appeasement of the oil and gas industry.

Just because we can’t see the methane pouring out of wells without an infrared camera doesn’t means it isn’t.

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Lisa DeVille is the president of the Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights (POWER).

To read more about the Lawsuit challenging the Trump Administration’s suspension of the BLM’s Waste Prevention Rule click here!

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