September 4, 2019

While state grapples with new methane rules, EPA wants to end some methane emissions limits all together

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Flare Off & Pumpjack (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by blake.thornberry

Permian Basin Oil Field in Eddy County, NM.

The EPA’s newly proposed methane regulation revisions drew criticism from oil and gas companies and environmentalists alike and spurred some groups in New Mexico to redouble efforts to pressure state officials adopt more stringent rules for methane emissions in the state.

Last week, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler proposed updates to federal air quality regulations for the oil and gas industry that would remove limits on methane emissions from production and processing operations and would remove regulations all together for methane emissions coming from transmission and storage sources of oil and gas production.

The proposed rule changes will “save the industry millions of dollars in compliance costs each year,” the EPA said, “while maintaining health and environmental regulations on oil and gas sources that the agency considers appropriate.”

“EPA’s proposal delivers on President Trump’s executive order and removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Since 1990, natural gas production in the United States has almost doubled while methane emissions across the natural gas industry have fallen by nearly 15%. Our regulations should not stifle this innovation and progress.”

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall described the proposed changes as a “backwards move in face of climate crisis,” in a statement released last week

“EPA’s decision today is an affront to New Mexicans and people across this country who have a right to clean air. By rolling back common sense standards that reduce waste and curb air pollution – the administration is moving in the wrong direction, needlessly jeopardizing the health and safety of our children and most vulnerable communities,” he said. “We should be strengthening protections for people and the environment from methane, not weakening them.”

Udall added that he has introduced an amendment to a pipeline safety bill currently sitting in the U.S. Senate that “would require the best available technology to cut down on methane leaks from pipelines.”

The proposed changes were not popular with environmental groups and even oil and gas stakeholders. Royal Dutch Shell’s U.S. Country chairperson Gretchen Watkins urged the EPA earlier this year to tighten methane emissions regulations rather than weaken them and BP America’s chairman and president Susan Dio told the New York Times it believes the industry “[has] to reduce methane emissions for natural gas to realize its full potential in our energy mix.”

Environmental advocacy groups in New Mexico have also spoken out against the EPA’s proposal.

“It’s impossible to overstate how extreme eliminating the EPA methane rule would be,” said Western Environmental Law Center (WELC)’s executive director, Erik Schlenker-Goodrich. Conservation Voters New Mexico’s political and legislative director Ben Shelton called the proposal a “fundamental dereliction of one of the most basic duties of the EPA,” while CAVU’s executive director Jordan Smith said the proposal was “an abdication of federal leadership at a crucial time in our history,” and it “makes producing a strong New Mexico methane rule even more important.”

Groups seek to guide state methane rulemaking

The EPA’s new methane rules have upped the ante of the state methane regulations for environmental groups, who are now hoping to guide state rulemaking to protect the environment and the citizens of New Mexico over the interests of the oil and gas industry.

Earthworks Field Advocate Nathalie Eddy called the EPA’s proposal “reckless” in a statement, adding that the organization has been using optical gas imaging to document oil and gas air pollution in the state.

The new rules “will impact New Mexicans living within a half-mile of oil and gas facilities and every resident of the state already living with worsening impacts of the climate crisis,” Eddy said. “Without strong national safeguards, the commitments made by Governor Lujan Grisham to cut methane pollution with state-level rules are all the more urgent for the people of New Mexico.”

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) — which together make up the lead agencies of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Climate Change Task Force — formed the Methane Advisory Panel earlier this year, charged with developing new methane emission regulations for oil and gas producers in New Mexico.

Industry interests make up the overwhelming majority of the panel, with 17 oil and gas executives sitting on the panel and only 10 individuals representing other interests, including advocates for public health and welfare, ranching communities, tribal interests and the environmental efforts. The panel will hold several meetings over the next two months while it develops the new rules.

Meanwhile, environmental advocacy groups have expressed their interests in the rulemaking at public meetings and in the media. WELC released a whitepaper in late August outlining six “core principles” to help guide the state’s rulemaking for methane emissions. The paper has been endorsed by 22 other advocacy and conservation groups, including Earthworks, the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and others.

WELC’s principles will “prevent a majority of the waste currently occurring in the state while also ensuring industry and taxpayers to benefit from the sale of captured gas,” the group said in a statement.

Methane waste has become a central issue in the debate over emissions. Oil and gas producers are only required to pay royalties on methane that is sold and not on the total amount of methane released through leaks, venting or flaring. Some 500,000 metric tons of methane was wasted in 2018. Methane venting increased 56 percent in 2018, while flaring increased 117 percent, according to data collected by the state’s Oil Conservation Division (OCD). 

The state misses out on more than $40 million each year from wasted methane, WELC said.

The proposed core principles range from adopting a policy of “near-zero tolerance” for methane waste and using a “holistic” systems-based approach to prevent methane waste; establishing data-based decision tools for compliance and enforcement of such rules; incentivizing infrastructure development to accommodate increased production of natural gas in the state; and creating requirements for transparency and accountability. The paper also calls for the state to begin implementing the new rules by 2020, and asks the OCD to create an interim action for taking “immediate steps to prevent methane waste” pending implementation of the new rule.

New Mexico has the opportunity to “develop the nation’s strongest, most effective rules governing the prevention of methane waste,” according to WELC

“The principles are grounded in a straightforward goal: near-zero tolerance for methane waste,” the paper states. “Given the chronic, massive scale of the methane waste problem and its adverse impacts on New Mexicans, we hope that the Oil Conservation Division and all stakeholders give them due consideration.”

Voter support for tougher methane emissions regulations

The methane regulation revamp has pitted environmentalists concerned with climate change against oil and gas workers who fear new regulations could drive industry away. But a recent poll conducted by Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research (GQR) for advocacy nonprofit The Majority Institute (TMI) found “strong support” among New Mexican voters for more stringent rules dealing with methane and carbon dioxide emissions.

Seventy-two percent of New Mexican voters polled support requirements for oil and gas producers in the state to use technologies available to limit the amount of methane gas and other pollutants released during their operations.

“This reflects a 10-point net increase from 2017,” TMI said, adding that the measure garnered “majority support across age, gender, racial, and geographic lines” in the survey. Ninety-three percent of Democratic voters voiced support for the requirement, as did 67% of voters registered as independent. Among Republicans, 46% of those surveyed also supported the requirement, according to TMI.