Kendra Pinto, a resident of Navajo Nation, was using an infrared camera to check for emissions earlier this year when she discovered methane leaking from under the ground due to a leak at a well site. Pinto said she reported the leak and, to her knowledge, the well site was shut in and excavated to inspect for the leak. She said such instances are not uncommon at oil and gas sites near her home in northwest New Mexico. Activists like Pinto, who works as a Four Corners Indigenous community field advocate for Earthworks, hope new federal methane regulations proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will reduce emissions that contribute to climate change and will also cut down on the air pollution impacting nearby communities’ health. “Emissions happen on leased land, but the air does not conform to those square boxes,” she said during a press conference on Tuesday.
Following concerns from members of the environmental community, the New Mexico Environment Department removed the exemptions from the oil and gas sector ozone precursor rule for stripper and marginal wells. The department released the ozone precursor rule Thursday and filed a petition with the Environmental Improvement Board to review it. A public hearing is anticipated this fall. If approved by the seven-member board, the rules would likely go into effect in early 2022. It is intended to work in conjunction with a methane waste rule that the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department already finalized.
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.
Some state legislators are concerned about the possible revenue implications of a proposed rule aimed at reducing methane waste in oil and gas operations. The state’s Legislative Finance Committee, a committee made up of members of both the House and Senate that considers priorities for the state budget ahead of the January session, is gearing up for a tough year financially for the state after the COVID-19 pandemic and an unrelated but simultaneous bust in the oil market has ravished state coffers.
“The state is in, in my terms, dire financial straits, because of income,” said Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo. “We are in a time right now where income to the state is down, oil and gas revenues are down. The timing sometimes is not always the best and so I think hopefully that will come into consideration before we finally apply these rules.”
The state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) proposed methane rule would require all oil and gas operators in the state to reduce their methane waste by a fixed amount every single year, starting in 2022, to reach the 98 percent gas capture rate by the end of 2026.
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EMNRD Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst told lawmakers during a recent Legislative Finance Committee meeting that the department’s proposal “will yield an additional $10 billion a year in revenue to the state for wasted resources” that would otherwise be lost. Cottrell Propst called the $10 billion a “low-end estimate.”
But several lawmakers on the committee worried the new regulations would threaten some of the state’s oil and gas operators during the downturn.
New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney said his department is working through hundreds of comments related to a proposed rule for regulating air pollution associated with oil and gas development.
“We received over 400 comments on our rule,” Kenney told state legislators during a recent committee meeting.
Last year, NMED and the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) were tasked with developing new rules targeting methane emissions in the state resulting from oil and gas activity. While EMNRD’s rule addresses methane emissions directly, NMED’s draft rule instead targets volatile organic compounds (VOC) and nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions from oil and gas wells.
Both NMED and EMNRD released draft proposals for their respective rules in July for public comment, after a year of work by the state’s Methane Advisory Panel, which was composed of oil and gas representatives, environmental groups and other stakeholders. EMNRD released a finalized version of its rule in mid-October. On Nov. 4, the Oil Conservation Commission agreed to set a hearing for the finalized rule in January.
But NMED still has some work to do before it releases a finalized version of its rule, Kenney said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham joined a choir of criticism Thursday directed towards the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the agency rescinded Obama-era regulations for methane emissions in the oil and gas sector.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed the new regulation at a press conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The new rule removes requirements for operators to fix methane leaks discovered during bi-annual inspections on equipment at well sites and downstream that were installed after 2015, and relaxes other standards related to emissions.
“EPA has been working hard to fulfill President Trump’s promise to cut burdensome and ineffective regulations for our domestic energy industry,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Regulatory burdens put into place by the Obama-Biden Administration fell heavily on small and medium-sized energy businesses. Today’s regulatory changes remove redundant paperwork, align with the Clean Air Act, and allow companies the flexibility to satisfy leak-control requirements by complying with equivalent state rules.”
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“It is utterly disheartening and sadly unsurprising to hear once again that critical environmental regulations are being rolled back by the Trump administration, leaving states to fend for themselves,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement Thursday afternoon. Lujan Grisham cited her administration’s work to develop more stringent methane rules for oil and gas operations in the state.
“New Mexico is well on the way to putting in place our own robust and innovative regulations to curb methane emissions in the oil and gas industry, which will yield improved air quality and fewer climate change-inducing emissions,” she said.
The state is partnering with a New Mexico-based geospatial analytics company to launch a “data refinery” to track methane emissions using satellite data. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the partnership at an energy and sustainability-focused summit held in Santa Fe on Thursday, touting that New Mexico will become the first state to use such data to inform methane regulations. Methane is the primary component of natural gas extracted in New Mexico and is a valuable revenue-generating resource for the state. But methane is also a powerful greenhouse gas, and reeling in methane emissions has become a priority for Lujan Grisham, as she balances the economic benefits of a booming oil and gas sector in the state with her administration’s goals of reducing carbon emissions and increasing the use of renewable energy.
The state hopes to find out how much methane is being released into the atmosphere through the newly-announced partnership with Descartes Labs. The company will use data collected from satellites, drones, planes and ground sensors to detect and track methane emissions in the state.
SANTA FE, N.M. – Conservation groups are slamming a move by the Trump administration to weaken rules on methane emissions from oil and gas operations. The new rule, proposed on Tuesday, would allow companies to inspect their lines for leaks less often, and take longer to fix issues that arise. Industry has long claimed the Obama-era rules are too expensive and burdensome. However, Matt Watson, associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Energy Program, said methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas that merits a strong federal standard. “Over 20 years, it’s more than 80 times more powerful than C02 [carbon dioxide] at trapping heat.
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.
Last week, Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, an attorney with WildEarth Guardians, asked the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) to establish regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state. That board, whose members are appointed by the governor, is responsible for rules related to public health issues like air quality, food safety and hazardous waste. By a four-to-one vote, the EIB denied the petition Ruscavage-Barz brought on behalf of 28 New Mexico children and teens. But she’s hopeful that there’s room for a conversation with the New Mexico Environment Department, the agency that was moving forward with strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the impacts of climate change just six years ago. Ruscavage-Barz said the board encouraged the group to work with the state agency and other stakeholders and come up with an enforceable plan.