On methane, Mexico moves forward as the U.S. moves backward

Priscilla Villa co-authored this blog with Lauren Pagel

On July 30th, Mexico released their new proposed safeguards to reduce oil and gas air pollution — specifically methane and associated toxic volatile organic compounds. These new standards are stronger than anything (proposed or existing) in the United States at the federal or state level, even stronger than California’s new safeguards adopted in 2017. Mexico’s rules would, among other things:

  • Require quarterly leak detection and repair (LDAR) using optical gas imaging or other approved technologies. (Earthworks’ Community Empowerment Project uses optical gas imaging to prove oil and gas production is polluting our air).
  • Use existing technology (low and zero bleed pneumatics) to reduce and in some cases eliminate some types of intentional pollution.
  • Implement common sense systems (vapor recovery systems) to capture gas bubbling out of holding tanks
  • Require “reduced emission completions” for fracked wells (sometimes mischaracterized as “green” completions).

Mexico’s community and environmental groups are hopeful. Groups have known oil and gas production was polluting their community which is why they requested Earthworks travel to Poza Rica, Veracruz to use our optical gas imaging cameras to document emissions. . As predicted, Earthworks captured harmful emissions from storage tanks, compressors, and pump jacks near community schools.

While Mexico acts to protect the health of its citizens and  climate, the Trump administration is ignoring health and climate threats as it rolls back existing federal methane safeguards put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department. Mexico’s government is treating methane oversight as a policy choice and not an ideological holy war. To create these rules, Mexico worked with expert scientists and policy analysts to examine the significance of oil and gas methane and associated VOC pollution, and what to do about it.

Honestly, it’s not rocket science. It’s universally recognized that methane is more than 86 times worse for climate than carbon dioxide. And that when methane is emitted by oil and gas operations, toxic hitchhikers like benzene (a carcinogen) are released too.

Science confirms the real world climate impacts of these pollutants. Since the onset of the shale/fracking boom, global methane pollution has spiked. And in January 2018 NASA confirmed that much of that spike is attributable to oil and gas pollution. So if a country has signed the Paris climate agreement as Mexico has, in order to meet those climate commitments it’s practically a no brainer to take steps to reduce oil and gas pollution. Ultimately, Mexico (and all nations) will need to severely curtail or eliminate oil and gas production on the way to a 100% renewable economy. And maybe they will. But in the meantime, cost-effective rules to cut methane pollution are a no-brainer.

Science also confirms the health threats from volatile organic compounds. As more scientific studies emerge that investigate the relationship between health impacts and proximity to oil and gas production, the more they confirm that risks increase when people live closer to these sites.

Mexico, whose oil revenue is a significant source of government income, is in the process of enacting strong methane safeguards. The state of Colorado, whose oil and gas sector is a major player in the state economy, worked with the oil and gas industry to enact methane standards stronger than the Obama administration implemented. ExxonMobil’s fracking subsidiary XTO has publicly endorsed the need for methane regulations. The Trump Administration should rethink gutting federal methane safeguards and instead act on protecting climate and Americans people facing the brunt of these impacts.