March 26, 2021

Environmental advocates praise adoption of final methane waste rule

Hannah Grover/NM Political Report

An oil well is pictured, Thursday, March 25, 2021, in Riverside Park in Aztec.

Mario Atencio, an activist from the Greater Chaco region of New Mexico, said the methane waste rule adopted by the Oil Conservation Commission on Thursday will set energy production in New Mexico on a path trending toward fairness.

Atencio’s community in the Counselor Chapter of Navajo Nation is among the poorest in the state and, he said, it has long borne the impacts of oil and gas emissions. He is hopeful that the methane waste rule will significantly decrease emissions impacting his community.

The Oil Conservation Commission, which falls under the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, unanimously approved the final language of the new rule for venting and flaring of natural gas during its meeting and the commissioners expressed pride in the final language. 

The methane waste rule requires 98 percent of the methane from oil and gas operations to be captured by 2026, although it leaves the companies with the flexibility to use a variety of technology to meet those goals.

Work on the methane waste rule began in 2019 following an executive order from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. This order required the EMNRD and the New Mexico Environment Department to create parallel rules addressing emissions. EMNRD was tasked with rulemaking to address methane waste and emissions while NMED’s rule will focus on ozone precursors such as volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxides. 

The work included public meetings throughout the state with high enough interest that the amount of people overflowed the rooms where they took place. Both industry groups and environmental advocates provided input during the process of drafting the rules. New Mexico Oil and Gas Association was one of those groups.

“New Mexico has proposed an ambitious rule requiring 98 percent gas capture, a goal that we share and support,” Robert McEntyre, a spokesperson for NMOGA, said in a statement following the vote. “This will enable our state to continue to lead in the safe, responsible production of oil and natural gas. As always, we will strive for full compliance with the final rule, and we commend this commission for undertaking a collaborative approach throughout this two-year process.”

The methane waste rule applies to both upstream and midstream operations, meaning wells, pipelines and gathering stations are all included.

“The Oil Conservation Commission has approved a strong methane waste rule that delivers on three important goals: it bans venting and flaring of gas except in limited circumstances, requires flaring over venting except when necessary for health and safety and emergencies, and requires all oil and gas companies to capture 98percent of methane emissions by 2026,” Tannis Fox, an attorney with Western Environmental Law Center, said in a statement released following the vote. “Now the New Mexico Environment Department must follow suit and eliminate significant loopholes and exemptions in its draft air pollution rule if New Mexico is to lead the nation in reducing methane waste and pollution and holding the oil and gas industry accountable.”

While methane is a main component of natural gas, and is therefore a commodity that can be captured and sold, industry will vent or flare off methane for various reasons. These include lack of pipeline access, safety and during completion of a well. 

The methane waste rule outlines a narrow set of criteria when venting and flaring can occur. It also requires flaring rather than venting when needed except for “when flaring is technically infeasible or would pose a risk to safe operations or personnel safety and venting is a safer alternative than flaring.”

Increasing the amount of methane captured will allow it to be sold, providing more royalty revenue to the state. 

Atencio praised the rules and highlighted a community health impacts analysis completed by three Navajo Nation chapters located in the southern part of the San Juan Basin. This analysis found that emissions from the oil and gas production was causing both mental anguish and physical health impacts.

Atencio said the results of the analysis were alarming. It revealed the amount of permitted emissions in the region as well as the leaks coming from the wells. 

He said the people in the Counselor community, which is one of the Navajo Nation chapters in the Greater Chaco region, have borne the environmental fallout in terms of toxic waste and air quality related to extractive industries. He highlighted that the area near Chaco Canyon also is one of the most economically challenged parts of the state. 

Atencio hopes the rules will lead to more leak detection and less venting and flaring. Additionally, he said he hopes that the energy companies will become “at least somewhat cognizant that they’re in business with the people out there…and not poison their business partners.”