BLM rule would cut natural gas waste, protect air quality on tribal lands

This opinion piece originally ran in the print edition of the Navajo Times on Thursday, December 1st.

Earlier this fall, a group of over 200 U.S. servicemen and women, including two retired generals, released a letter calling on the Obama Administration to stop methane waste from oil and gas development on public and tribal lands. 

And this November, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) listened to those calls by adopting a strong final rule to cut venting and flaring from oil and gas operations on tribal and public lands, while also requiring periodic inspections for and repairs of methane leaks from production facilities and equipment.

As a U.S. Army combat veteran from the Navajo Nation, I applaud and support this decision. Methane waste is a serious problem for tribes, robbing tribal governments of millions of dollars and polluting the air we breathe.

Methane is the primary component of natural gas and often times oil and gas producers will either burn off (flare) or release into the air (vent) excess methane, instead of taking the inexpensive steps to install the infrastructure to capture and sell the gas. Also, methane is colorless and odorless and can leak from equipment, including pipelines and storage tanks, without anyone noticing. This wasted methane represents millions of dollars literally disappearing into thin air.

That’s money that could have went to tribal governments for roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, and social programs. In fact, the business consulting firm ICF International found that nearly $100 million worth of natural gas is lost through venting, flaring, and from equipment leaks each and every year on tribal lands. Companies are not made to pay royalties for the gas they waste, denying tribes even more millions in royalties.

In addition to the millions of dollars we are losing, other chemicals are co-released alongside methane, which increase rates of asthma attacks in children. These chemicals are also linked to ozone pollution. In fact, tribal lands in Utah’s Uintah Basin are among the worst in the country for ozone pollution, rivalling major cities like Los Angeles for poor air quality. And this ozone pollution has been directly linked to oil and gas development in the surrounding area, in a study commissioned by the oil and gas industry.

Methane emissions from oil and gas facilities were also identified by NASA as major contributors to the Delaware-sized methane ‘hot spot’ that is hanging over the Four Corners region of the U.S.

Not only must we take steps to ensure our oil and gas reserves are developed responsibly, but we also have a moral duty to ensure energy is not wasted when many Native Americans are without access to reliable electricity and heat.

In fact, as many as 14 percent of households on tribal lands have no access to electricity, which is 10 times higher than the U.S. average. We cannot continue to look the other way while a family lives without heat and a company flares “excess” natural gas down the road.    

I served and fought to protect our county and lands, including our oil and gas resources. I am honored to be from a proud lineage of Native veterans, with a rich and deep history of U.S. military service and sacrifice. During both world wars, Native American “code talkers” were an integral parts of the effort, charged with transmitting secret tactical messages using their native languages. Their “codes” were never deciphered and historians agree this tactic helped America win the war in the Pacific during World War II when our own Diné language was used.

The principles of the oil and gas companies extracting our tribal resources should also align with those of the Navajo Nation and U.S. service: self-improvement, leadership, and responsibility. We must expect more for ourselves, our lands, and our resources.

The BLM’s leadership in adopting commonsense reforms  lives up to those values and will promote sensible energy development, ensure affordable energy, reduce air pollution, ensure a fair return for taxpayers and tribal governments, and respect our natural heritage and lands.

Tina Garnanez is a volunteer with Vet Voice Foundation and a former Army medic who served 5 years in the Army and deployed to Kosovo and Iraq. Garnanez is a New Mexico resident and grew up on the Navajo Nation in Shiprock, NM.