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New Mexico Strengthens Proposed Regulations to Reduce Greenhouse Gases

State officials want the petroleum industry to cut ozone-causing pollutants, but say understaffing will make enforcement tricky.

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Photo: Jacek Sopotnicki.

In a reversal from an earlier proposal, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) announced it won’t exempt nearly 30,000 oil and gas wells from new rules to cut pollution. 

Co-published by Patch

If adopted, the new proposed rules would reduce ozone-causing chemical emissions in New Mexico and have the knock-on effect of reducing methane emissions in the state’s two oil and gas producing regions. In particular, this proposal eliminates an explicit exemption for nearly 30,000 stripper wells across the state. These low-production wells produce comparatively small amounts of oil and gas but can still pollute and leak as much as more productive wells.
 

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“The exemption went from almost everybody to almost nobody,” says Tom Singer, senior policy advisor at the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC). “And we like hearing that.”

“That said, the devil is in the details,” says Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of WELC. The group has yet to study the details of the highly technical proposal. “We need to dive into the proposed rules to analyze just how fully they protect the climate and New Mexicans’ health, especially that of our most vulnerable communities.” 

Next, the proposed rules will be sent to the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board, which will hold public hearings on the rules this fall before deciding whether to implement them, possibly by spring of 2022.

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The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) worked for more than two years and spent more than $1 million on studies and contracts to develop the rules as part of Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the state. 

“It’s really important for us to be focusing on people’s basic ability to breathe,” NMED Secretary James Kenney said in a conference call with reporters.

Nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds are the primary targets of the NMED rules, as they are the building blocks of ozone pollution. Ozone triggers asthma attacks and pulmonary diseases, and Kenney said that breathing ozone “is effectively like getting a sunburn on your lungs.” That’s of particular concern as his department is the primary state agency battling the COVID-19 crisis. That virus is inhaled and can be especially dire in people who already have respiratory issues.
 


“Most of the industry in New Mexico recognizes that working towards improved air quality, as well as keeping their product in the pipeline and selling it, is a benefit to everybody.”

~ James Kenney, New Mexico Environment Department secretary

 
Curtailing those ozone precursors has the added benefit of reducing methane emissions from oil and gas facilities as well. Methane releases and flaring are also regulated by the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division, and the two state agencies are currently developing separate, yet complementary, sets of rules as they monitor and regulate greenhouse gas emissions in oil and gas production.

“Most of the industry in New Mexico recognizes that working towards improved air quality, as well as keeping their product in the pipeline and selling it, is a benefit to everybody,” Kenney said. That’s because industry can sell natural gas that isn’t vented into the atmosphere. The methane captured would be enough energy to power 1.2 million New Mexico households on an annual basis, he added.

In a video posted to Twitter, the governor compared the reductions to “taking 8 million gas-guzzling vehicles off the road every year.” 

Methane is a critical gas to capture as it is 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over the first 20 years of its release to the atmosphere. 

On the same day that NMED released its new proposed rules, the United Nations Environment Programme and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition released their Global Methane Assessment, which calls for a dramatic reduction in methane emissions by 2030 to avoid a catastrophic rise in global temperatures. “The Paris Agreement’s 1.5° C target cannot be achieved at a reasonable cost without reducing methane emissions by [40%-45%] by 2030,” it says.

The report’s authors also note that ozone “causes approximately half a million premature deaths per year globally and harms ecosystems and crops by suppressing growth and diminishing production.”

Emissions of those greenhouse gasses are contributing to New Mexico’s challenging conditions. The state just tallied its driest 12-month period on record. That’s reflected in the closure of boat ramps at state parks due to a lack of water in the state’s lakes and reservoirs. Overall, New Mexico’s oil and gas production is responsible for more than half of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

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But Kenney cautioned that implementing the proposed rules will be a major hurdle for a department that is chronically understaffed compared to the size of the oil and gas industry it keeps tabs on.

“We have an unlevel playing field between industry and the government right now,” Kenney said.

NMED currently has seven inspectors to monitor more than 50,000 wells and other oil and gas facilities across the state. The proposed rules call for most of the monitoring and reporting to be conducted by the oil and gas operators themselves.

“It’s clear that self-policing is not the answer. It is clear that you need strong rules with committed resources to conduct enforcement,” he said. “We don’t have those resources in the environment department in terms of an inspector corps that can be out there assuring compliance on a regular routine basis.”
 


The New Mexico Environment Department currently has just seven inspectors to monitor more than 50,000 wells and other oil and gas facilities across the state.


 
He said that NMED is preparing to implement new monitoring technologies to make up for the lack of personnel, from more flyovers to new cameras to new satellite technology: “We have to be just as innovative in the way we assure compliance as the way industry is… in extracting oil and gas,” he said.

Leland Gould, chairman of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, released a brief statement in response to the proposed NMED rules that read in part, “Our members are committed to protecting the health and environment of the communities where we operate … New Mexico should be a leader in responsible energy development.”

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In the San Juan Basin in the northwest corner of the state, rancher and activist Don Schreiber has 30 stripper wells on his land, some of which he can see from his front yard. 

“I do really want to compliment them for coming around on that issue,” he said of the New Mexico Environment Department. But he’s waiting on a full review of what’s in the update before he breathes easily.

“We must wait for a sober assessment of what the rules really mean and say,” he said. “Nobody knows what this means until somebody takes it apart with a fine-tooth comb.”

And he remains troubled that the proposal doesn’t appear to include requirements for “green completion” in the proposed rules. That would require oil and gas well drillers to capture all of the gas that is regularly vented and lost during the drilling and setup processes.

If the rules halt emissions like NMED says they will, “That will have been a giant step forward for New Mexico and for front-line communities like me … and my family,” Schreiber says.

“I hope that’s true. I want it to be.”


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