With all the big oil and gas news over the last few weeks, it might be hard to keep track of the different rules, agencies, court rulings and studies—and what they mean for New Mexico. Last week, U.S. District Judge James “Jeb” Boasberg ruled that the federal government’s environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline was insufficient. The ruling came after the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River tribes sued the federal government, arguing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t complied with the National Environmental Policy Act when it greenlighted plans to build the oil pipeline under Lake Oahe, a reservoir on the Missouri River. In his opinion, Boasberg wrote that the court agrees that the federal government didn’t adequately consider how an oil spill would affect fishing rights, hunting rights or environmental justice issues. It’s not clear, however, if the company must cease operations while the Corps of Engineers reconsiders certain sections of its environmental analysis.
BLANCO, N.M. – Most evenings, the quiet is almost intoxicating. The whoosh of the wind through the junipers, the whinny of horses in their stalls, the raspy squawking of ravens – those are the sounds Don and Jane Schreiber have grown to love on their remote Devil’s Spring Ranch. The views are mesmerizing, too. Long, lonesome ridges of khaki-colored rocks, dome-like outcrops and distant mesas rise from a sea of sage and rabbitbrush. The ranch and surrounding countryside are a surprising setting for an enduring climate change problem: a huge cloud of methane – a potent, heat-trapping gas – that is 10 times larger than the city of Chicago.
National policies always affect New Mexico’s lands and natural resources, especially during times of uncertainty. In the 1940s, for example, military and nuclear interests honed in on the state’s lands and natural resources. The U.S. government established what became Los Alamos National Laboratory on Pajarito Plateau in 1943, and detonated the first atomic bomb two years later near Alamogordo. White Sands Missile Range, which encompasses 3,200 square miles, was created in the 1940s, as were the military bases in Albuquerque and Clovis, now called Kirtland and Cannon. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the news right now.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, is expected to announce today whether he’ll try overturning a rule that would cut methane waste from the oil and gas industry. This is the last week that the Senate can overturn the methane rule under the Congressional Review Act (CRA). That law, passed in 1996, allows Congress to overturn federal regulations they disapprove of within 60 days of having received the rule. If the rule is “disapproved,” the agency isn’t allowed to issue a similar rule in the future without statutory authorization. Nor is the CRA subject to judicial review.
If you haven’t gone out to look at the Rio Grande, no matter where along its banks you live, now’s the time. The snowmelt is pouring down the channel, causing the river to overbank in lots of places throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley. In southern New Mexico, the normally dry channel is also running as water managers are moving water from reservoirs to southern New Mexico fields and orchards and to Texas. Speaking of snowmelt, March was an exceptionally warm month in New Mexico. According to the National Weather Service, 143 record-high temperatures were broken across 34 weather stations on 15 days.
I’ve been reporting on environment issues for almost 15 years, and during most of that time, it hasn’t exactly been a breaking news beat. There are disasters like wildfires or the Gold King Mine spill. But for the most part, covering issues like drought, climate change and energy policy doesn’t usually involve a race to deadline. It seems like that’s been changing lately, however. Part of that change is due to the Trump administration.
Some New Mexico Democrats gathered Monday to express support for regulations to limit methane emissions from natural gas flaring and leaks, even as congressional Republicans are planning to repeal the rule on a federal level. Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, called such a proposal a “triple win,” saying it would help businesses waste less methane that they could instead sell, cut pollution and benefit the state budget. The Santa Fe Democrat said that other states, like Colorado and Wyoming were already seeing benefits from methane capture rules. Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, noted that under questioning by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, “the American Petroleum Institute was unable to provide senators with a single shred of data that found smart methane regulations had any negative impacts on oil and gas jobs.”
State Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, echoed the two Representatives and brought up health impacts of natural gas leaks. “When I go visit my constituents at the various chapters of the Navajo communities, what they have to live with, not only the flaring, but the smell and the things you can’t see that impact their lives and that’s important for us to realize and understand the environment,” Shendo said.
It’s been a rough few days for people concerned about climate change and the environment. By the time Trump gave his inaugural address, mentions of climate change already disappeared from the White House website. As the New York Times reported, the purge was part of the routine “full digital turnover” of whitehouse.gov. But it did place into “sharp relief some of the starkest differences” between presidents Obama and Trump. On Friday, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus also issued a freeze on new or pending regulations—which included four U.S. Department of Energy efficiency standards. That same day, after a National Park Service employee retweeted two news reports—about the disappearance of the White House climate pages (among others, like those related to civil rights) and the administration’s smaller inaugural crowd—government Twitter accounts were temporarily shut down.
New Mexico has joined the fight over the federal government’s regulation of methane releases from oil and gas operations. This week, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a motion to intervene in the case the industry filed against the federal government. The Western Energy Alliance and Independent Petroleum Association of America want to overturn the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s rule that regulates the release of methane, or natural gas, from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal lands. New Mexico and California support the rule. According to court documents the BLM’s rules will benefit the two states in three ways: generating more annual revenue by cutting natural gas waste, protecting public health from harmful air pollution and reducing the impacts of climate change.
The United States Bureau of Land Management announced this week a final rule aimed at limiting methane flaring at oil and gas wells. The rule, which requires oil and gas producers to limit the amount of methane released into the atmosphere, is set to be enforced gradually. In a press release, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said the rule is also an effort to update regulations to mirror available technology. “Not only will we save more natural gas to power our nation, but we will modernize decades-old standards to keep pace with industry and to ensure a fair return to the American taxpayers for use of a valuable resource that belongs to all of us,” Jewell said. New Mexico State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn has long opposed the BLM rule, citing the difficulty of oil and gas companies getting access to federal land in order to capture the excess methane.