On a late March weekend, State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard headed out to the Permian Basin, to visit oil wells on state trust lands. These are wells that churn out profits for corporations, build up the state’s general fund from taxes and royalties and send money to schools and hospitals.
Looking through a special camera that detects emissions of volatile organic compounds, Garcia Richard also saw that the wells are sending methane and other pollutants into the air.
“There are seemingly innocuous pieces of equipment, tanks, pipes, and then you look at it with the FLIR camera and you can see these clouds of emissions,” the commissioner said. “We went to some older operations, some newer operations, some [wells operated] by some smaller companies, some by larger companies.”
Not one facility they visited didn’t have emissions pouring out from pipes or seeping out of valves.
Many people living in, or traveling around, northwestern and southeastern New Mexico have spotted flares. During drilling operations, natural gas is sometimes released to clear out impurities or so gases don’t build up to dangerous levels. Gas can also be vented—released but not burned off. On the federal level, the government has changed tactics from trying to cut methane emissions from oil and gas development to dropping or rescinding those rules. In some places, states are trying to take the lead on methane—to address climate change, protect public health and make sure companies capture and sell methane, or natural gas, instead of wasting it.
In an executive order on climate change, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently directed two state agencies, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), to create a new regulation requiring operators to reduce their methane emissions.
Companies can employ technologies and efficiency measures, as they have in other states like Colorado. But as Garcia Richard saw in the Permian, cutting methane emissions is an even bigger challenge than many realized.
“I think we have this incorrect notion that a capture requirement and a methane rule will address everything,” Garcia Richard said. But it’s not enough to just control venting and flaring operations. That “minimizes the reality,” she said.
“We need to work with the industry to figure out other opportunities and solutions for infrastructure build-out, detection and monitoring systems—and we really need to be turning away from this notion of sweeping it under the rug,” she said. “The biggest thing I learned out there [in the Permian] is that you can roll up to a site that looks pristine and brand-new, and then you turn on the FLIR camera, and it tells a different story.”
Those fugitive emissions aren’t due to “nefarious” actions on the part of operators, Garcia Richard said, “and it’s not like we need to shut down industry.” But New Mexico does need to “get real about our methods and solutions to ensure we don’t have that leakage.”
Garcia Richard was out in the oil field with the nonprofit Earthworks, which has a Forward Looking InfraRed, or FLIR, camera to document oil and gas field pollution as part of its Community Empowerment Project. Sharon Wilson, senior organizer for Earthworks Oil & Gas Accountability, is a certified optical gas imaging thermographer. She’s trained and certified to use the FLIR camera, which is independently verified to detect emissions.
Wilson said they found fugitive emissions from gaskets and connectors, and also open “thief hatches,” broken valves and separator tanks “blasting out emissions.”
Since 2014, Wilson has traveled nationwide with the FLIR camera, investigating more than a thousand sites. The Permian Basin, which includes parts of Texas and New Mexico, she said, is “the worst place I’ve ever seen in my life” when it comes to the emissions.
Wilson and Nathalie Eddy, a field advocate with Earthworks, scouted sites before bringing Garcia Richard out to the wells on state trust lands. “Our goal was to go look at a bunch of sites, and prioritize which ones are the worst, and find a site that’s operating well,” Eddy said. “We never found that site. So, what we showed to the commissioner wasn’t the worst of the worst to terrify her. It was just what we found.”
They ended up visiting 12 sites. But just in the Permian Basin, there are almost 5,800 current leases on state trust lands. That doesn’t represent the actual number of wells, since a lessee can have multiple wells on a lease, and many leases include hundreds of acres of land. On top of that, there are also leases on federal, private and tribal lands in New Mexico—about 60,000 oil and gas wells statewide.
Eddy said it’s heartening that the New Mexico State Legislature just passed a bill to restore the Oil Conservation Division’s authority to fine companies that pollute the state’s waters and that New Mexico is working on regulations to cut methane emissions.
“All those things are steps, but the fact of the matter is, this is a losing race,” she said. “The boom, the growth of fracking in the Permian is always going to be faster than the regulators.”
In 2018, oil production in New Mexico hit record highs. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), oil production in the state tripled last year from 2009 levels, with production exceeding 772,000 barrels per day. And the trend is predicted to continue. The EIA projects American oil production will increase to 10 million barrels per day in the early 2030s, up from 2018 rates of 6.5 million barrels per day—more than 40 percent of which came out of the Permian in eastern New Mexico and west Texas.
Meanwhile, scientists have noted that if humans don’t drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade, we will not stop warming that will be “long-lasting” and “irreversible.”
NMED’s Air Quality Bureau Chief, Liz Bisbey-Kuehn, explained that the department is responsible for implementing the federal Clean Air Act in most parts of New Mexico.
Operators must monitor emissions and report their findings to the state. NMED can also perform unannounced inspections and conduct their own emission audits. The state has active enforcement cases under development right now and others in the settlement stages, she said. And they are planning more inspections in the coming months, which
Bisbey-Kuehn said may lead to additional enforcement actions.
Statewide, the department regulates about 4,200 oil and gas facilities, even though there are tens of thousands of wells. That’s because only operations that release pollutants at a rate greater than 10 pounds per hour or 25 tons per year are required to have an air permit.
Recently, NMED released a map showing methane emissions from 4,000 oil and gas wells and tank batteries it regulates for air quality. Next, they plan to add data from compressor stations, refineries and gas plants, as well as information from about 1,500 other manufacturing, construction, agricultural and chemical facilities.
The map is just a beginning, Bisbey-Kuehn said, as the department tries to grasp the scale of emissions and also hire more staff for inspections. And when it’s warranted, the new administration is trying to ramp up enforcement, she said.
Meanwhile, the Oil Conservation Division within EMNRD regulates venting and flaring from wells through the New Mexico Oil and Gas Act.
Speaking earlier this year, EMNRD Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst explained that development of the new methane rule will involve conversations with industry, environmental groups and stakeholders.
“We’ll be making sure the approach is grounded in the law, and our respective authorities [of EMNRD and NMED]…and the goal is to have an effective and enforceable rule,” she said. And when it comes to implementing the executive order, she said, “We just want to leverage New Mexico’s leadership and creativity in how we address this really important environmental challenge.’