State Environmental Improvement Board hears air quality permits appeal

The state Environmental Improvement Board heard arguments during a hearing on Thursday about air quality permits issued by the New Mexico Environment Department that an environmental group alleges are illegal. 

WildEarth Guardians appealed four permits issued by NMED for oil and gas facilities in Eddy and Lea counties, where ozone levels now exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). 

Ozone is the only pollutant under the NAAQS that is not directly emitted from any source. Instead, ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrous oxides (NOx) are exposed to sunlight and warmer temperatures. Summer months are usually when ozone levels reach their highest point. In addition to Lea and Eddy counties, ozone levels in five other counties in the state are at 95 percent of the NAAQ standard. Source: New Mexico Environment Department

NMED recently released draft rules targeting reductions in VOCs and NOx emissions at oil and gas facilities.

Speakers tout NM’s climate leadership, but are quiet on oil and gas production

A group of local leaders touted New Mexico’s work towards addressing climate change during a recent webinar on public health and climate change. But speakers such as Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, and New Mexico Department of Health (DOH) Sec. Kathyleen Kunkel tip-toed around the state’s recent record oil production and its contribution to climate change. Fossil fuel combustion is the chief driver of carbon dioxide emissions that are causing climate change. While many states have begun transitioning to renewable energy sources to replace coal, oil and natural gas, New Mexico is the only state to adopt a 100 percent clean energy mandate while also producing record levels of oil. 

“For the [Gov. Michelle] Lujan Grisham administration, environmental issues are public health priorities,” Kunkel said in her remarks, adding that DOH is part of the governor’s climate change task force.

NMED says it cannot deny oil and gas permits due to ozone concerns

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) doesn’t have the authority to deny permits to companies for oil and gas facilities over concerns about impacts to already high levels of ozone in Eddy and Lea counties, according to an NMED spokesperson. 

Ozone levels in Eddy and Lea counties are in violation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), while ozone levels in five other counties in the state—concentrated in the state’s two oil and gas producing zones in the northwest and southeast—are at 95 percent of the NAAQ standard. 

Source: https://www.env.nm.gov/air-quality/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2019/10/OAI_Presentation_09262019.pdf

The environmental organization WildEarth Guardians has filed challenges against permits authorized by NMED, arguing that the department is violating state law by continuing to issue permits for new oil and gas facilities that will contribute to a growing air quality problem in the Permian Basin. WildEarth Guardians argued in its appeals that NMED approved three permits and one natural gas plant “without considering the cumulative impacts on air quality, and the subsequent impact on public health.”

State law holds that NMED “shall deny any application for a permit or permit revision” if, when considering emissions after controls, the permit activity “will cause or contribute to air contaminant levels in excess of any National Ambient Air Quality Standard or New Mexico ambient air quality standard.”

“It’s a pretty straightforward requirement, it says, if there’s a problem, don’t make it worse,” Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program at WildEarth Guardians, told NM Political Report. 

RELATED: Worsening air quality in Permian Basin ‘cause for concern’

But NMED told NM Political Report that ozone levels are not always considered in permit approvals for oil and gas facilities. 

Ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrous oxides (NOx) are exposed to sunlight and warmer temperatures. While oil and gas facilities are known sources of VOCs and NOx emissions, these ozone precursor pollutants are regulated differently than the other air contaminants that are considered in the NAAQS. 

“These sources are classified as major or minor, depending on the amount of pollutants they emit (in tons per year),” NMED said in an email. Applications for permits for facilities that are identified as “major” sources of VOCs and NOx typically include air quality monitoring “to see how the emissions will impact ozone formation in the area where the source is located,” the Department said, but no modeling is done for minor sources on a facility-by-facility basis. 

Instead, NMED said it uses “protocols and guidance developed by EPA to determine if emissions from these sources meet significance levels considered to contribute to ozone concentrations.”

Ozone formation modeling is more complex than modeling for other types of air contaminants, because ozone is not directly emitted, but rather is the result of chemical reactions related to VOCs and NOx emissions and sunlight. 

Sufi Mustafa, Modeling and Emissions Inventory Unit Manager at NMED’s Air Quality Bureau, said ozone formation must be evaluated in relation to emission sources that are “hundreds of miles away” that could also be contributing to ozone formation in New Mexico, in his testimony submitted to the Environmental Improvement Board, which handles appeals of permit applications for NMED under the state’s Air Quality Control Act. 

“Predicting an individual facility’s contribution to the ozone levels in a region is extremely difficult compared to the directly emitted pollutants,” Mustafa said in the testimony, adding that NMED’s modeling guidelines do not require source-specific ozone modeling for minor sources. “None of the sources whose permits are being challenged by [WildEarth Guardians] have emissions that meet those significance levels,” the department told NM Political Report.

Worsening air quality in Permian Basin ‘cause for concern’

Jeremy Nichols, director of WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program, is concerned about the air people are breathing in southeastern New Mexico. Nichols tracks ozone levels in Eddy and Lea counties, the state’s top oil producing counties in the Permian Basin. In early July, a key ambient air quality monitor near Carlsbad was abruptly shut down, after a monitoring station operator noticed the A/C unit at the site wasn’t working properly and the facility was getting too hot for the electronics. Nichols is worried about the incident because the monitor in question had recorded ozone levels in that area exceeding the federal standards before it was shut off.  Now, it’s not reporting any data on air quality in the Carlsbad area. “It basically means that people are not getting any information on the quality of the air they breathe,” he said.

Hidden exposures: Studies point to unsafe levels of formaldehyde exposure in oil and gas communities in NM

On a hot, dusty day in August last year, a group of regulators from the New Mexico Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department traveled to Counselor, New Mexico, to tour the oil and gas sites that dot the landscape of the Greater Chaco region. 

The group included NMED’s Air Quality Bureau chief Elizabeth Bisbey-Kuehn, Environmental Protection Division director Sandra Ely, NMED Secretary James Kenney and EMNRD Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst — all key regulatory figures in the state’s Methane Advisory Panel, tasked with developing new regulations around oil and gas emissions. Teresa Seamster, Navajo Nation Counselor Chapter Health Committee member, used the opportunity to present the findings of a recently completed health impact assessment (HIA), which found periodic spikes of formaldehyde and other pollutants associated with oil and gas development, recorded at unsafe levels for short periods of time near homes. 

“Formaldehyde is probably one of the most carcinogenic chemicals in air that you can have,” Seamster told NM Political Report. “It will cause irritation of the respiratory tract, it can lead to throat and nose cancer, chronic respiratory inflammation and bronchitis, it’s definitely something you do not want in the environment, and we were getting it in the open air at levels that require mitigation.”

“Formaldehyde was detected at all sites at unhealthy levels,” she added. 

Seamster and other volunteers from the chapter conducted the study under the guidance of the Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit public health organization that conducts scientific air quality monitoring for communities near oil and gas development. The report is currently unpublished — and will likely remain so until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides and the Navajo Nation government is able to reopen — but NM Political Report obtained a copy. It’s also the latest in a growing body of evidence, codified into multiple peer-reviewed studies conducted across the country, that indicates communities situated near oil and gas development are exposed to hazardous pollution at higher levels than either state or federal regulatory agencies recognize.

Report: Climate change, oil & gas emissions a bad mix for New Mexico air quality

Climate change and a sharp increase in oil and gas production in the state are contributing to worsening air quality in New Mexico, according to a new report. 

The American Lung Association’s (ALA) annual “State of the Air 2020” report, which looks at ozone and particle pollution levels across a three-year period between 2016 and 2018, found air quality across the country has worsened since last year’s report, and New Mexico is no exception. 

Climate change has been a chief driver of worsening air quality, said JoAnna Strother, senior advocacy director for ALA, because it increases the amount of particulate matter in the air. 

“Climate change is really leading to stuff that we saw in this year’s report. The past five years are the warmest years on record, globally,” Strother said. “As temperatures warm up, we see more droughts, more dust storms, more wildfires — all of those contribute to the unhealthy air quality that we see picked up on air quality monitors.”

Wildfires are another major contributor to particle pollution, she said, particularly in the western United States. 

“Those wildfires might be happening in California and we would certainly see effects in other states like New Mexico,” she said. 

Strother also pointed to drought, a common and growing environmental challenge in New Mexico. 

“When there’s no rain to saturate, the dust becomes very fine particles, and when that’s picked up into the air, it [becomes] particle pollution. We’re specifically looking at PM2.5, so it’s extremely fine particles that lodge very deep down into the lungs, and is responsible for a lot of the health impacts,” she said. 

Particulate matter monitors in NM

Much of the particulate matter data for New Mexico is missing from the ALA report, which uses data compiled from state air quality monitors. 

Source: American Lung Association

That’s because the state’s ambient air quality monitors aren’t placed in each county, according to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). New Mexico maintains 20 ambient air quality monitors throughout the state, and the locations of those monitors are based on population density, NMED spokesperson Maddy Hayden told NM Political Report. 

Hayden said NMED’s air quality monitors and their locations must be federally-approved, and the state would not receive approval to place more air quality monitors in areas that do not meet population requirements. 

RELATED: For Greater Chaco communities, air pollution compounds COVID-19 threat

“What pollutants are monitored in the network and where those monitors are located is determined and governed by federal requirements for siting and the federal Environmental Protection Agency,” she said. 

Particulate matter in Eddy and Lea counties, for example, is monitored by just one PM2.5 “sampler” located in Hobbs.