While environmental activists praise various aspects of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s newly released report on federal oil and gas leasing and permitting processes, some say the report is incomplete and fails to account for the impact fossil fuel emissions have on climate change. The department released the report to comply with an executive order President Joe Biden issued titled “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.” This executive order directed the Department of the Interior to review leasing and permitting processes. The report was released Friday and consists of 18 pages.
The report includes recommendations such as raising royalty rates, charging more for rent and requiring higher levels of bonding.
While the recommendations are supported by the environmental advocates, many of whom have been pushing for such reforms for years, some say that the recommendations do not go far enough to address the climate crisis. “We’re sympathetic to the political gauntlet the Biden administration must run, but it had a choice to run it with power, speed, and agility. Instead, it’s running that gauntlet, weak, slow, and tentative,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center, in a press release.
Last year in the area near Orogrande in Otero County, a motorcyclist was killed when he ended up in an abandoned mine, according to Jerry Schoeppner, the Mining and Minerals Division director for the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. Abandoned hard rock mine sites throughout the state can create dangerous conditions for people and the environment, but the funding that the Mining and Minerals Division relies on to clean up these sites is limited and will expire in September. Additionally, the state does not know exactly how many mines are located in New Mexico. Schoeppner is hopeful that the funding will be reauthorized and that New Mexico could even possibly see an increase in funding.
A $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill introduced in Congress this week would, if passed, ensure funding for the mine cleanup for the next 15 years. Additionally, it would provide the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund with about $11.3 billion, which would be divided between states and tribal nations.
A fungus that causes the often-fatal white-nose syndrome in bats has been found in two caves in eastern New Mexico. These caves are located within the Bureau of Land Management’s Roswell Field Office in De Baca and Lincoln counties. BLM Wildlife Biologist Marikay Ramsey said New Mexico has not had any cases of white nose syndrome in bats in the past and the biologists will need to do further testing to determine if the disease is present in the state. That means euthanizing a bat and analyzing it in a lab. However, she said the fungus was found on cave walls and evidence of the disease were seen on certain bats.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decided to move forward with a public engagement process for plans to expand drilling in the Greater Chaco region, even as the communities in northwestern New Mexico, who are currently struggling with a surge in COVID-19 cases, have repeatedly requested an extension to the process.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the BLM released a draft amendment to the Farmington field office resource management plan (RMP) and environmental impact statement in late February, kicking off a public comment period that ends on May 28. The 400-plus page draft amendment outlines a preferred alternative that would increase oil and gas activity in the Greater Chaco region.
As the COVID-19 outbreak has spread across the state, local community groups in the Greater Chaco region requested the BLM extend the public comment period during the public health emergency. That call was echoed by the state government, the congressional delegation, and tribal leaders. All told, three separate letters were sent to the Department of Interior requesting the comment be extended. As of Friday, none have received a response, according to officials.
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Meanwhile, populations in the northwest corner of the state, including communities on the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands, have been pummeled by COVID-19.
Amid a Permian Basin oil and gas boom, conservation advocates worry the current levels of industry activity occurring on federally-managed lands in southeast New Mexico are unsustainable, damaging to the land, reducing habitat for wildlife and further stressing populations of fauna that are struggling against a changing climate. A 2018 policy change drastically increased the frequency of oil and gas lease sales in the state, propelling the Carlsbad Field Office, which oversees management of BLM land in portions of the Permian Basin, to become one of the busiest BLM field offices in the country. The Carlsbad office is also in the midst of a resource management program (RMP) revision that began in 2010, updating the 1988 RMP that outlines, among other things, where oil and gas leases can be sold. Conservation groups such as the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance have nominated several areas for federal protection against oil and gas development. And the state’s Game and Fish Department has identified a number of important wildlife migration corridors in the Permian Basin for protections from oil and gas activity.
The U.S. has oscillated from being the largest economy to participate in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change to becoming one of the world’s strongest voices promoting the continued burning of coal and other fossil fuels. New Mexico has had a front row seat to that change, of course. In 2019, the Permian Basin became the world’s most productive oilfield, and New Mexico has emerged as a top oil-producing state.
Oil and gas expansion across New Mexico and Texas will be a chief driver of future greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to a recent report compiled by 15 global environmental groups that was released ahead of the U.N. climate-focused COP25 conference held in Madrid this year.
“Right now, the Permian Basin is the biggest projected driver of oil and gas expansion — not just in the U.S. but in the world,” said Kelly Trout, senior research analyst at Oil Change International, a research and advocacy group. Trout was a contributor to the report.
“Our data shows that the potential year of peak production for the Permian Basin in 2032,” Trout said. “The Permian Basin itself could produce more oil and natural gas liquids than Saudi Arabia [at that time].”
U.S. outpaces all other countries in planned oil and gas expansion
The U.S. is poised to outpace every other country in the world in new oil and gas development, according to the report.
Wednesday, a U.S. district court judge in California slapped down the U.S. Department of the Interior’s attempts to roll back its own rule aimed at cutting the waste of natural gas, or methane, from wells and pipelines on federal and tribal lands. The Bureau of Land Management’s waste prevention rule limits routine flaring of natural gas from oil wells, calls for industry to modernize leak-detection technology and fix leaks that are found and prohibits venting natural gas directly into the atmosphere, except under certain circumstances. Flaring and venting are in some cases unavoidable, such as when new wells are being drilled or for safety purposes, and have been regulated since the late 1970s. With the new rule, BLM sought to tighten the waste of natural gas and also address greenhouse gas pollution. After Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke suspended the rule, conservation groups sued.
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.
U.S. Senators voted against overturning a rule aimed at cutting methane waste from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal lands Wednesday morning. The surprise defeat of the effort was on a 49-51 vote, with Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina voting along with Democrats to keep the rule. Note: This is a developing story and we will update as new information comes to light and members of New Mexico’s delegation react. As we reported yesterday, both of New Mexico’s senators oppose overturning the rule. Both Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are Democrats.