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The Trump administration and congressional Republicans have gotten rid of a lot of environmental rules that were put in place by President Obama. But there is one that they're having trouble undoing because they can't get enough votes in the Senate. It's the rule to limit emissions of methane from oil and gas sites on public lands. NPR's Nathan Rott went to New Mexico - the heart of the methane debate - to hear what's at stake.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: To get anywhere around Don Schreiber's ranch, it's best to have a 4x4. He and his wife live in the Rocky high desert plains of northern New Mexico more than an hour from the nearest town. Schreiber is an insurance salesman turned rancher. But these days, he's mostly an activist because surrounding his ranch are oil and gas wells - 122 of them by his count.
So this is an older rig?
DON SCHREIBER: Well.
It's a flattened out, bare piece of earth with pipes, storage tanks and pressure valves all painted a juniper green to blend into the surrounding scrub.
SCHREIBER: You smell it now, right?
ROTT: Just a whiff - like the paint section in a hardware store.
SCHREIBER: They call that the smell of money.
ROTT: The smell of money?
SCHREIBER: Which it is. In this case, wasted money.
ROTT: Wasted because one of the gases coming off of this site - one you can't smell - is methane. Methane is the main component of natural gas. You probably use it in your home to warm the hot water heater or to cook on the stove. And when it's captured, methane can be sold. Out here, Schreiber says, it's lost like water from a leaky faucet.
SCHREIBER: Here we go. Might get a little action.
ROTT: There's a noise from a nearby pressure valve and not long after - Schreiber says that's the sound of methane and other gases bleeding into the blue New Mexico sky. The Obama administration tried to curb this with a rule that aims to limit venting flaring and leaking of methane at energy production sites like this. It requires that some of the methane be captured.
For one, the administration said, it would prevent the loss of millions of dollars' worth of gas that otherwise disappears into the air. Second, methane is a potent greenhouse gas. It warms the atmosphere at about 30 times the rate carbon dioxide does, and the amount of it in Earth's atmosphere is increasing.
At the San Juan School of Energy in Farmington, N.M., you'll hear a different perspective.
TOM MULLINS: This is where, you know, we're leaking methane, right? Aren't we just leaking it on purpose?
ROTT: I sense a little bit of irony there.
Tom Mullins is the president of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico and the owner of a small Farmington-based oil and gas company. And he says energy companies like his don't need a federal regulation requiring them to capture leaking gas because they already have an economic incentive to do so.
MULLINS: That's the overriding incentive on everything we do - making money.
ROTT: Mullins says that's why they fix leaks when they find them and replace older equipment with more efficient newer pieces when it's time. That new equipment, though, is expensive Mullins says. And many of the wells in this area are older and not producing all that much gas, so modernizing them now just doesn't financially add up.
MULLINS: If it made economic sense for me to swap this out with a new one versus the old one, I would do it because it would pay for itself, right? That would be the logical answer. But I'm telling you that it doesn't make economic sense for that to be done on these older wells.
ROTT: That's why Mullins and many other oil and gas operators and industry groups are pushing Congress and the Trump administration to do away with the Obama mandate. They think the rule will force the closure of older gas sites prematurely and that regulation is best left to the states. That doesn't sit well with Gwen Lachelt. She's the commissioner of La Plata County, Colo., just up the road from Farmington.
GWEN LACHELT: We have a methane cloud the size of the state of Delaware over our region.
ROTT: She's referencing a much-talked-about NASA photo that shows a methane hotspot over the region. Some people here think it's caused by natural sources more than oil and gas. But either way, Lachelt says, they need to deal with it. And she thinks a federal rule is the best way. Colorado already has a strong methane rule that was actually the model for the federal rule, but she doesn't expect New Mexico to follow suit anytime soon.
LACHELT: If we're just letting it go up into the air, we're not maximizing company's profits, we're not maximizing the return to the taxpayer, and we're being irresponsible in terms of pollution.
ROTT: That's the argument Lachelt is making to her Senator Republican Cory Gardner. He's one of a few senators who are still undecided about the rules future. Though, he doesn't have much time left to make up his mind. Congress faces a deadline in a few days to repeal the methane rule outright. If the Senate does not manage to overturn it, the Interior Department could aim to rewrite the rule but that process is long and would likely face litigation. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Farmington, N.M.
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