Atmospheres of Oil & Gas: the Four Corners Methane Cloud and Contests Over Land in the San Juan Basin



Hotspot: A Signal from Space ///

Nestled between mountain ranges, the San Juan Basin is an oval shaped geological depression that spans approximately 6,500 square miles across large parts of northern New Mexico and the southwestern tip of Colorado. Long studied by geologists and archeologists, in recent years a group of atmospheric scientists have also been drawn to the San Juan Basin. What pulled these scientists to the Four Corners region of the U.S. southwest, where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah neatly intersect, was an unusual signal detected by instruments aboard an international space satellite. The signal suggested that an especially large quantity of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, was emitted from this region.

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Map of the San Juan Basin in northern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado, USA.

At first the researchers thought the signal might indicate a glitch in their sensing apparatus. But they soon got wind of data collected from another team of researchers at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), who had set up a ground-based air monitoring site in northern New Mexico near the San Juan Basin’s two mouth-to-mine coal plants. The LANL researchers were looking at other pollutants, but their instruments also measured methane in the atmospheric column. With the help of atmospheric models, the data gathered by the team at LANL could be used to help verify what the satellite had seen. Not only was a lot of methane coming from the San Juan Basin: the combined findings suggested that both national and international greenhouse gas inventories significantly underestimate how much is emitted from the region’s largest source of methane: oil & gas production.

The methane hotspot was plotted as a bright red dot on a map of the continental United States, making the Four Corners stand out amidst a sea of purples, blues, and greens — colors that denote more normal distributions of the gas. The image began circulating widely upon its release in late 2014, announcing the discovery of “the largest U.S. methane anomaly viewed from space.” News of the methane cloud hovering above the San Juan Basin has drawn significant attention to the region, including follow-up studies that have confirmed that the oil & gas sector is by far the biggest methane emitter in the basin. But more than a sensational story and a catalyst for animating nationwide conversations about the contribution of the oil & gas industry to the country’s greenhouse gas budget, the methane hotspot has served as a measured and measurable index of the cumulative impact of extraction in the region. It’s a sign that something in the air isn’t quite right.

Methane: From the Basin to the Planet ///

Methane is an extremely important greenhouse gas, second only to carbon dioxide (CO2). While its lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter, methane can trap up to 84 times more heat than CO2 in its first twenty years in the atmosphere, and at least 25 times more heat over a period of one hundred years. For this reason, the reduction of methane emissions from multiple sectors was a cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s policies to address climate change. While the current Trump Administration is in the process of trying to overturn Obama-era regulations requiring the reduction of methane emissions from oil & gas infrastructure, methane remains a key and controversial issue in many parts of the country — not least in the Four Corners region.

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Image produced by the United States Geological Survey. (right) Map indicating the oil & gas wells in the San Juan Basin. Oil wells are pictured in pink, and gas wells in blue – totaling approximately 40,000 active and abandoned wells. These wells basically outline the contours of the San Juan Basin in northern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado. / Image produced by the Energy Information Association.

The San Juan Basin’s oil & gas wells emit more methane than wells in all other producing basins in the country, wasting over $100 million of methane per year. The basin’s 40,000 wells and the vast network of transportation, storage, and processing infrastructure that accompany them are particularly leaky. Methane is the major component of natural gas, and is emitted at multiple stages in the production and distribution process. Fugitive emissions escape through leaky valves, flanges, pipelines, and other equipment. Some methane is purposefully vented or flared: for instance, when a well targeting oil also brings up natural gas but there isn’t infrastructure onsite to store or transport that gas, operators will frequently burn off the excess methane by flaring it. As it burns, methane converts into CO2 and floats up into the atmosphere. Importantly, many kinds of methane emissions from the oil & gas sector are preventable: improvements in infrastructure, leak detection and inspection, and stronger regulations could have a significant impact in reducing emissions.

The Four Corners methane cloud has enabled residents in the region to make connections across multiple scales, articulating their concerns about the impacts of local extraction to global warming. Methane, in other words, helps situate the San Juan Basin in relation to the entire planet. The cloud represents a collective environmental problem — anthropogenic climate change and pollution — that has concentrated in a very particular place.

This place is not unfamiliar with bearing the social and ecological burden of projects that bolster industrial capital and the settler state. Extraction has long been constitutive of the region’s landscape, first in the process of settler colonial expansion and dispossession, and subsequently with cascading regimes of resource extraction — primarily for coal, uranium, and oil & gas. The Four Corners region is comprised of mostly small towns, cities, and tribal lands, with no major urban centers. It is home to multiple indigenous nations and pueblos, ranchers and industrial workers, outdoor enthusiasts and artists, and many others. These groups are as diverse as their multifarious stakes in the region’s landscape. But one thing they share in common is the air they breathe.

Cloud ///

What is a cloud, anyways? The methane hotspot is not a stable object, but rather an ongoing process that forms a recognizable pattern over time. Satellite data show that methane has been pooling in the San Juan Basin since at least 2003, when the first spectroscopic readings from space were taken. More recent research led by a team of scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that today’s emissions are still consistent with what the satellite had seen during its orbit between 2003-2009. Today, the basin’s bathtub-like topography continues to provide a sheltered space for airborne substances to settle, especially at night and in the early morning before daily winds pick up. By mid-day, concentrations diffuse, only to pool up again by nightfall. The cloud, in effect, comes and goes and comes back again — but it does so persistently because there are persistent emissions in the basin.

Recent research by NOAA further establishes that no single source of methane in the Four Corners accounts for more than 2.4% of the region’s total emissions. This is a crucial finding, as it underscores the distributed nature of the cloud. Some particularly large emitters contribute more methane than others to the hotspot, but the cloud’s origins are indeed dispersed across the region’s oil & gas infrastructure, with some contributions from the coal industry and geologic seepage along the natural outcrop of the basin.

When I first travelled to the Four Corners in 2015 to begin researching how the recent introduction of fracking technologies was reconfiguring longstanding debates about oil & gas development in the region, I found myself wondering whether I would be able to feel the methane cloud. The discovery of the cloud had been announced just months before, and the region was abuzz with a mix of concern, confusion, speculation, and dismissal about what was hovering above.

But of course, methane is an invisible and odorless greenhouse gas. The cloud itself did not press upon my senses, though the anxious atmosphere it generated did. With so much public attention tuned to the air, I began to take notice of it in new ways. I learned to pay attention to air’s densities as I drew breath or as I peered through it, my gaze searching for the horizon on a hazy road. I began to attend to air’s circulations as winds blew through the high desert, picking up dust and the occasional iconic tumbleweed.

Methane, I quickly learned, isn’t the only thing in the air in the Four Corners. Methane represents one of the major global air quality impacts of oil & gas production, but this industry also affects the air at local and regional scales. On a local scale, oil & gas production releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene and other pollutants that are directly harmful to public health. Increased truck traffic and diesel-powered equipment in communities where extraction takes place can also release these pollutants. Regionally, oil & gas emits the VOCs and nitrogen oxide that react together in the atmosphere to produce regional smog, or ground-level ozone. In the San Juan Basin, the Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station, the region’s two mouth-to-mine coal plants, also contribute high volumes of nitrogen oxide to this recipe for ozone. The region’s ozone levels hover just below the threshold of what is considered unsafe for public health, with San Juan County, New Mexico — in the center of the basin — receiving the grade of “F” from the American Lung Association in 2016 for its high ozone levels.

The compounds that are literally in the air mingle with the region’s history of land and resource extraction, generating an atmosphere that is thick with the weight of accreting toxicity and ongoing conflict about what it means to use a landscape well. Much of what is in the air today has been, and continues to be, driven up
from underground. In between the geologic, where substances are mined, and the atmospheric, where they diffuse through the troposphere and upwards, sits the land where people live. Contests over land management and jurisdiction, I suggest, are in fact central to understanding the conditions of possibility for the methane cloud and the San Juan Basin’s atmospherics.

Land /// 

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View of Chetro Ketl, a Chacoan great house, as afternoon thunderstorms roll in at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. / Photograph by Sonia Grant (2015).

In 2003, when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last formalized a planning strategy for oil & gas development on the New Mexican side of the San Juan Basin, the agency did not think that hydrocarbons could be viably extracted from the basin’s Mancos shale. At the time, the drilling techniques required to unlock oil & gas from underground shale deposits were deemed too complex and too costly. The BLM did not, therefore, assess the potential impacts of such techniques — horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, together known as “fracking” — in its Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the region.

But less than a decade later advances in drilling technologies caught up to the promise contained in shale plays around the country much faster than the BLM had anticipated. The first horizontal well fractured New Mexico’s Mancos shale in 2010. Production steadily increased, so much so that by 2014 the BLM announced that it would have to amend its RMP to account for this new development. The agency now foresaw the potential for an additional 3,650 new wells in the Mancos shale alone. The RMP Amendment process, currently ongoing, is expected to be complete by 2020. However, and much to the concern of indigenous and environmental groups in the region, the BLM has continued to lease parcels and grant drilling permits for fracked wells in the Mancos shale at the same time that the agency is in the process of assessing the very consequences of doing so.

Fracking is enabling oil & gas development to encroach closer and closer to New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park — a UNESCO Heritage Site that protects the center of ancient Pueblo culture in the Southwest, and which is of great importance to many living indigenous communities throughout the region. The Greater Chaco landscape, the landscape surrounding the formal park boundaries, hosts some of the only federal mineral acreage in the San Juan Basin that has not yet been leased for development. Tribal lands border this area on all sides. As extraction moves into this critical landscape, both the Navajo Nation and the All Pueblo Council of Governors have urged for a moratorium on drilling in the area until the BLM completes a full assessment of the impacts of fracking in this region.

The BLM’s decision to allow fracking to proceed unchecked despite substantial public opposition is indicative of long-term patterns of land management in the region that have prioritized extraction over other uses of the landscape. This response to fracking, the region’s latest frontier of extraction, is reminiscent of the late historian Patrick Wolfe’s oft-cited analysis that settler colonialism is a structure, not an event: it cannot be reduced to the moment of colonial encounter but is rather a complex social formation and an ongoing process of dispossession. As an enduring structure that changes over time yet maintains key recognizable features, settler colonialism bears a certain resemblance to the methane cloud that it helped birth in the Four Corners.

Settler colonialism’s cohesion, if we follow Wolfe’s definition, comes from the repetition of a set of coordinated practices centered on territorial dispossession and the elimination of native societies. As indigenous scholars and activists have argued, naming settler colonialism as a foundational structure of the U.S. nation-state is crucial if we wish to begin dismantling it. And yet as a heuristic that names an entire series of processes, the term settler colonialism also demands attention to the specific practices through which it reproduces itself as a structure. Land management in the San Juan Basin provides a window into these practices, and points to the tight nexus of settler colonial governance and resource extraction. In a similar vein, I suggest that the methane cloud is a useful overarching frame for describing a systemic infrastructural problem and atmospheric process, which can at the same time direct us to look more closely at its distributed causes and effects. Seen as a process in which oil & gas infrastructure continues to be allowed to expand across the San Juan Basin, and in which methane leakage is infrastructure’s rule rather than its exception, the cloud brings us right back to land (management).

Caption/credit top photo: Flaring off natural gas (primarily methane) at a well site in the San Juan Basin. / Photograph by Sonia Grant (2015).