Environmental advocates say the ozone precursor pollutant rule developed by the New Mexico Environment Department should be strengthened, while supporters of the oil and natural gas industry say the draft rule is too restrictive and the costs of retrofitting equipment could lead to wells being plugged. Organizations on both sides had the opportunity to present arguments and answer questions during a two-week-long Environmental Improvement Board hearing that ended Friday. Ozone pollution is caused when volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen react in the presence of sunlight. This can be seen in the form of smog. Several New Mexico counties are pushing federal National Ambient Air Quality standards for ozone and, if the counties go into non-attainment status, they could lose access to federal funding for infrastructure projects such as roads.
The New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board kicked off a hearing about the ozone precursor pollutants rule on Monday with opening statements from the New Mexico Environment Department, environmental advocacy groups and industry groups. The hearing is anticipated to take two weeks and public comments are being accepted at multiple times each day during the process. Additionally, recordings of the hearing will be posted on YouTube. The EIB will not vote on the rule until after the parties have filed post-hearing briefs and proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. The hearing examiner will also file her report prior to the EIB voting on the measure.
The Eunice Gas Plant will be shutting down as part of a settlement between the plant’s owner, DCP Operating Company and the New Mexico Environment Department. NMED alleges DCP illegally emitted almost 3.8 million tons of pollutants from May 2017 through June 2019 at various facilities including the Eunice Gas Plant, where 131 excess emissions events occurred between May 1, 2017 and Aug. 16, 2018. According to an NMED press release, the Eunice Gas Plant was the highest source of emissions. In an emailed statement, DCP said the Eunice plant is “an older vintage facility” that includes the company’s last sulfur recovery unit in New Mexico.
As he stood looking at an orphaned well in Kirtland, U.S. Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh asked, “is this ground dirty here?”
Activist Don Schreiber said yes and Adrienne Sandoval, the Oil Conservation Division Director for the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, confirmed that there was surface contamination in places at the site. Sandoval said the contaminated soil will have to be removed from the site and clean soil will be brought in to replace it. Walsh visited the orphaned well with U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, a New Mexico Democrat who has been pushing for increased funding to assist states with cleaning up orphaned wells. They, and Aztec Mayor Victor Snover, met with Schreiber and Sandoval at the private property where the well is located. Related: Federal lawmakers seek funds to plug orphaned oil and gas wells
The site is one of the hundreds of oil and gas wells in New Mexico that has no operator or responsible party to clean it up.
Oil and gas development on federal lands has prioritized development over protection of cultural sites and has occurred with inadequate tribal consultation, according to a new report authored by Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest. During a press conference on Tuesday, Reed said that needs to change.
Reed said Archaeology Southwest began a review of oil and gas leasing policies and approaches as President Joe Biden’s administration took office earlier this year. “The goal of our review was to identify problems and issues that need to be addressed,” he said. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Interior is also reviewing its oil and gas leasing program. Reed said Archaeology Southwest is “optimistic that many of the issues that we’ve raised in our report will be addressed in that review as well.”
He said that the Archaeology Southwest report reached two primary conclusions: that the oil and gas leasing program “prioritizes the use of public lands for mineral extraction at the expense of protecting cultural resources and landscapes” and that the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies are failing to consult Native American tribes.
The United States and countries around the world are eyeing hydrogen as a source of clean, dispatchable power, but work is still needed to get to that point, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told NM Political Report while touring a facility in Farmington that manufactures blue hydrogen reactors. Farmington-based Process Equipment Servicing Company, better known as PESCO, and Albuquerque-based BayoTech are working together to create the blue hydrogen reactors using technology initially developed by Sandia National Laboratories. BayoTech hopes to deploy the first fleet of compact, mobile hydrogen generators later this year. Blue hydrogen uses methane derived from natural gas and splits the carbon from the hydrogen.
U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, visited the PESCO facility with Granholm on Thursday as part of an energy transition tour following the Senate passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes funding for hydrogen projects, including at least four regional clean hydrogen hubs.
Related: Five ways the federal infrastructure bill could benefit New Mexico projects
San Juan County leaders told Granholm that they hope the northwest region of New Mexico will be chosen as the site for one of these hubs. San Juan County Commission Chairman John Beckstead said the county would like to become not only a hub for the hydrogen industry, but also a center of excellence for hydrogen in the United States.
Environmental advocates disappointed in return of oil and gas leasing amid appeal of federal moratorium
While President Joe Biden and the U.S. Department of the Interior announced on Monday that they will appeal a district court’s preliminary injunction that ended the pause of oil and gas lease sales, environmental advocacy groups in New Mexico expressed disappointment that lease sales will resume during the appeals process. Biden issued a moratorium on oil and gas lease sales in January and instructed the Interior Department to review the oil and gas lease process. The state of Louisiana, as well as a dozen other states, sued the administration, citing the importance of oil and gas to their economies. This led to the district court ruling in June which blocked Biden’s administrative suspension of new oil and gas leases. “Thanks to our broken federal leasing program, oil and gas companies have gotten a free pass to pollute our lakes, rivers and streams, and have not been held accountable for cleaning up their messes,” said Angel Peña, the executive director of Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, in a statement.
An agreement between El Paso Electric and community advocates may lead to cleaner air in the southern part of New Mexico while allowing the utility to construct a new unit at a natural gas generating facility in west Texas.
The settlement agreement between the utility and the Chaparral Community Coalition for Health and the Environment as well as the Sierra Club comes as EPE seeks an air permit to construct Unit 6 at the Newman Generating Station, which is a natural gas power plant located in Texas near the New Mexico state line. “The permit will authorize EPE to begin construction of the state-of-the-art 228 megawatt natural gas replacement unit necessary to meet our customers’ growing energy needs,” EPE said in a statement. “Newman Unit 6 will allow for the inevitable decommissioning of older generating units.”
The Chaparral Community Coalition for Health and the Environment and the Sierra Club opposed the construction of Unit 6, but have agreed to withdraw their legal challenge of the air permit following the agreement. “We do not want Newman 6. But if it’s going to be built anyway, it’s better built with this settlement than without it,” said former Doña Ana County Commissioner David Garcia, a Chaparral resident, in a press release.
A report indicating that PFAS chemicals have been used in hydraulic fracturing operations in New Mexico “emphasizes how important it is for regulators to know what is in the industrial wastewater,” Maddy Hayden, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Environment Department told NM Political Report in an email. Physicians for Social Responsibility released a report this week that found PFAS chemicals, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or chemicals that could break down into PFAS have been used in fracking operations in 1,200 wells in half a dozen states, including New Mexico. PFAS chemicals have a broad range of applications and can be found in household objects including non-stick cookware. In recent years, there has been growing concern about the potential health impacts of these “forever chemicals,” which do not break down under normal environmental conditions. “Ongoing research into uses of PFAS and the prevalence of these persistent chemicals in the environment is essential to support strong regulatory responses at the federal and state levels,” Hayden said.
When looking for places to sequester carbon, old oil fields may be a promising choice, according to a new study published in the journal Geology. Geophysicists from Stanford University analyzed the Delaware Basin – a sub-basin of the Permian Basin in western Texas and southeastern New Mexico – and found that injecting substances into older oil fields is less likely to cause earthquakes than if the substances are injected into a newer oil field. The geophysicists, No’am Dvory and Mark Zoback, noticed that the southern part of the basin had more seismic activity than the northern part, which has a long history of extraction. The seismic activity is primarily connected to salt water disposal, which occurs throughout the basin, according to Dvory. After creating models, the duo discovered that pore pressures in geologic formations in the northern part of the basin were lower.
The Oil Conservation Division of the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department regained the ability to fine oil and gas companies that were not complying with state laws a little more than a year ago, and officials say this has paid off. Since February of 2020, the OCD has filed 23 complaints, resulting in $263,000 in penalties that go to the state’s general fund, according to a press release from EMNRD. Of those complaints, nine have been resolved. These complaints are only the formal enforcement actions that assess penalties against operators. In addition to those complaints, the OCD also issues field citations.