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New Mexico brings big data to bear on methane pollution

By MORGAN LEESeptember 19, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Satellite imagery and supercomputing capabilities will be used to detect and monitor methane pollution from major oil and natural gas installations in New Mexico, under an informal partnership announced Thursday between state regulators and the private-sector data cruncher Descartes Labs.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the collaborative effort in Santa Fe at a summit-style event that brought together oil industry specialists, regulators and environmentalists to explore technical challenges and solutions to conserving methane.

New Mexico is scaling up the regulation of oilfield disposal and leaks of methane as the Trump administration dials back its oversight. New state rules for limiting methane leaks are likely to be published next year at the end of lengthy technical review — with implications for a thriving oil and natural gas industry in the Permian Basin that extends across portions of southeastern New Mexico into West Texas.

Methane, the main component of natural gas, frequently leaks or is intentionally released during drilling operations. It traps far more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, doing 25 times the damage over the long term despite surviving for less time, according to the EPA.

Descartes Labs CEO Mark Johnson says his Santa Fe-based company is developing a data “refinery” that can chart industrial methane emissions using satellite imagery — including the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P atmospheric monitor — and other sensors.

The results might be used to dispatch government inspectors more efficiently to help rein in leaks, or spur a range of innovative solutions, he said.

“It’s a collaborative effort because we don’t have all the answers,” Johnson said.

Lujan Grisham said effective measurements of methane emissions will be needed to hold the regulatory system accountable — “for the public to have trust that we are doing all of this work productively.”

Lujan Grisham signed an executive order earlier this year that sets new deadlines for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and encourages renewable energy development.

At the same time, a surge in oil production in the Permian Basin is helping New Mexico state government underwrite major state policy initiatives to improve public education and address stubbornly high levels of poverty and unemployment.

The oil and gas industry has said technological advancements are helping to curb methane emissions, even as production reaches record levels.

Those advances were on display Thursday as Rob Eales described efforts by his employer EOG Resources, a major producer of oil and gas in the Permian Basin, to more efficiently detect its own methane emissions with aerial drones that might eventually visit 25 or more locations a day.

The Trump administration moved in August to revoke regulations on methane leaks from oil facilities with a proposal that environmental advocates said would renounce key federal authority to regulate the climate-damaging gas.

Republican state Rep. Rod Montoya attended Thursday’s summit and said he supports efforts to cull more information about methane emissions from satellite data.

At the same time, he worries that relatively small oil companies — some overseeing aging infrastructure — might be hurt unfairly by new regulations.

“We’re just going to bankrupt some of the smallest businesses,” said Montoya, a former coal industry worker from Farmington.

Descartes is the recipient of state economic development grant funding that is designed to offsets infrastructure costs for businesses that expand or relocate to New Mexico.

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