Day one of a three day tour of the Permian Basin. We’re in the south east corner of New Mexico, close to the boomtown of Carlsbad. The first area we looked at, north east of the city, is an area of public state and federal land that was first drilled decades ago in the previous boom. Today, new wells are being drilled and fracked, and old ones are being worked over to stimulate more production.

Pump jacks are everywhere. I mean literally everywhere, sometimes just a few tens of feet apart. The tanks containing oil and produced water stand close by. Many of these are in bad condition. Oil stains the sides of the tanks and the surrounding ground. Some of them are not operating anymore, and they just stand there rusting away. 

We’re traveling with Sharon Wilson and Nathalie Eddy, both with Earthworks. Sharon is a veteran of the fracking fight going back to the early days of the Barnett Shale boom. She’s a trained expert with a gas imaging camera, which she points at the tanks and flares to see the invisible gases, methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), pouring out. Pretty much all of them are leaking. Some of this is routine and allowable under the permits. Some are leaking way beyond the permit. The air is thick with sulfurous fumes.

This is mostly public land. Resource extraction is part of the public lands mandate, so is grazing, recreation and wilderness protection. But there’s really only one thing going on here. In this area, it’s been going on for decades. Any pretense that this will be cleaned up and restored appears abandoned, like the pump jacks and tanks that are strewn around. This is public land, and it has been used and abused. No doubt profits were made and perhaps royalties paid. But the side of the bargain that is supposed to preserve the land for future generations, and the integrity of the ecosystem, is not being kept. Make no mention of our climate, of course.

In the afternoon, we travel south of Carlsbad to see sites that have been recently drilled and fracked. Very close to the city limits we come across large industrial complexes. A maze of tanks, pipes and flares. These are gas processing plants that separate methane gas from the gas liquids such as ethane, propane and butane, which feed the petrochemical complexes and the plastics plants. These are all relatively new. Yet here again, tanks are leaking, flares are poorly lit, and methane and VOCs are clearly visible in the gas imaging camera, flowing into the atmosphere. We see three separate plants, all leaking to some extent.

flows of methane and VOCs, invisible to the eye, can be seen on the screen of the gas imaging camera

As we head back to town, we’re drawn toward a number of flares, more visible now as the sky darkens. One is particularly large, a huge ball of flame jumping and dancing erratically into the air. Nathalie is looking for the home of Penny Aucoin, one of the few local residents to have dared raise a voice against the industry that has taken over Carlsbad and the surrounding county. Penny’s home has been inundated with drilling rigs and flares that have sickened her and her family. Nathalie is confused though. She can’t find the house. Have we driven past it?

We come to the end of the road and there’s a house on the corner. Across the road from the house is the site with the huge gas flare. We get out of the car to take some pictures, the roar of the flare can be heard above the truck traffic, we’re literally in someone’s front yard. Nathalie realizes we passed Penny’s house just a few hundred feet back. The reason is the flare that was directly across the road from Penny’s house the last time Nathalie and Sharon were here has gone, and this one has come up. 

Later in town, we pull up in the parking lot of a busy brewery and pizza joint. When we get out of the car, we can still see the flare lighting the night sky from several miles away. I check my phone and see a news story in my email. Permian Basin gas flaring has reached record levels, again. Over 750 million cubic feet per day flared in the past 3 months. A second story tells how the CEO of one of the biggest Permian companies is calling on his peers to cut flaring. He says companies should not drill until the infrastructure to take the gas away is in place.

But here, just on the edge of a major city, with gas processing plants dotting the above ground landscape, and gas pipelines crisscrossing the subterranean landscape, is a newly fracked site flaring enough gas to light the sky for miles. You can literally see the gas processing plants from the site.

So it’s not about a lack of infrastructure. If it was, that site could have been connected the day the gas first flowed. The problem is there’s so much drilling that the gas, which is merely a byproduct of the oil that drillers are targeting, is worthless. The price of gas around here is not worth the investment to connect it to the network. Even though that cost is likely trivial given the proximity of the infrastructure. And there are no regulations that force producers to connect it up.

It seems pretty clear to me, this stopped making sense a long time ago.