Anthropology and Environment Society
Oral Presentation Session
A cloud of methane the size of Delaware hovers above the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico, and just out of the law’s reach. Its primary sources – the 40,000 active and abandoned oil and gas wells that speckle the basin, leaking quantities of methane – are well known. But responsibility for the cloud itself is harder to pin down. As the Trump Administration has rescinded regulations that authorized federal agencies to regulate methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, and as states like New Mexico scramble to enact rules that would partially control these emissions, a question still hangs in the air: how to address the cloud itself? Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, 86 times more capable of trapping heat than carbon dioxide in the short-term. When emitted from the oil and gas production chain, methane is accompanied by airborne substances that are harmful to human health. As a harbinger of both the extra-local impacts of petrochemical extraction, and of the cumulative planetary effects of industrial activity, the methane cloud is a potent example of extraction’s extralegal excesses. Examining the cloud within its social, ecological, and political-economic entanglements, this paper argues the cloud must be understood in relation to the region’s history of settler land management. As an atmospheric materialization of the landscape’s surface and mineral administration, the cloud points to practices of jurisdiction and extraction in New Mexico’s settler colonial present that enable the release of hydrocarbons from underground and into atmospheric suspension.