President Joe Biden wasted no time in starting to tackle some of the country’s most pressing climate change issues after being inaugurated on Jan. 20. One of Biden’s first acts as president was to rejoin the U.S. to the Paris Agreement, a 2015 non-binding pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions necessary to keep the planet’s warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.
Nearly every country in the world has made the pledge to act on climate change, but Former President Donald Trump announced plans to remove the U.S. from the accord in 2017. The country was not officially able to exit the agreement until Nov. 4, 2020, one day after the presidential election.
The oil fields of the Permian Basin in southeast New Mexico are quieter since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But that hasn’t made the job any easier for oil field inspectors. As a staff manager and inspector with the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division (OCD), Gilbert Cordero spends his days driving a truck around a region larger than Connecticut, checking for leaks in the tens of thousands of oil and gas wells, connecting pipes and storage tanks. This story originally appeared at Capital & Main and was co-published with the Santa Fe Reporter and is republished here with permission. Monica Kuehling, an OCD compliance officer in the opposite corner of the state, inspects wells in the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Climate Change Task Force gave an update Friday on the state’s progress in reaching Lujan Grisham’s climate change goals in its second annual report. Those goals include reducing emissions, increasing renewable energy generation and decarbonizing the transportation sector.
Lujan Grisham said her administration’s commitment to fighting climate change has only grown stronger this year, pointing to wildfire and drought conditions.
“We are dead set against allowing climate change to bring about the next public health crisis,” she said in a statement.
New Mexico produces more than twice the national average of greenhouse gas emissions per capita. Those high emissions are “largely the result of our greenhouse gas-intensive oil and gas industry, which makes up a significant portion of our overall greenhouse gas emissions profile,” the report said.
Data in the report indicates that methane emissions continue to be a problem for the state. Source: New Mexico Climate Change Task Force
Nationally, methane accounts for just 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, but in New Mexico, it accounts for 35 percent.
The report found that emissions generated from the oil and gas sector in the past few years have been greater than previously estimated, citing a recent peer-reviewed study from Colorado State University that analyzed emissions in New Mexico. The oil and gas sector generated 60 million metric tons (MMT) of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, which is nearly four times more than previously estimated based on national data, according to the study.
The Task Force created nine interagency “Climate Action Teams” over the last year to tackle the state’s emissions problem and spearhead energy efficiency and sustainability work.
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.
Communities in the Greater Chaco region of northwestern New Mexico have been subjected to worsening air quality caused by oil and gas development in the region. That exposure has possibly increased the risk COVID-19 poses to Navajo families living amidst oil and gas development, according to a Harvard study.
COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, has spread quickly through the Navajo Nation since the first cases were reported in mid-March. As of April 14, the Nation, which spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, reported 838 cases. Of those, 284 cases are in New Mexico. “We are concerned, we’re really concerned,” said Teresa Seamster, Counselor Chapter Health Committee member.
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) announced more possible emission violations produced by oil and gas operations around the state. The department said it acquired video footage collected by citizens using forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras documenting methane and other air contaminants. NMED believes the emissions depicted in the video footage are “potential violations of existing state permits or regulations,” the department said in a statement. RELATED: NMED issues first round of violation notices for methane emissions in Permian Basin
NMED is sending written notices to oil and gas operators about the emissions. Oil and gas producers will have 14 days to correct the issues.
The New Mexico Environment Department issued notices of violation to two oil and gas producers operating in southeastern New Mexico. Matador Production Company and Mewbourne Oil Company were both cited for violating the state’s Air Quality Control Act. NMED discovered the violations during an inspection conducted in April alongside the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The violations included failure to capture emissions from storage vessels, failure to maintain pilot lights on flares, failure to comply with closed vent system requirements and failure to ensure natural gas is captured and not emitted to the atmosphere. The EPA also cited the two companies for violating the federal Clean Air Act.
The New Mexico Environment Department and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham strongly oppose the EPA’s proposal to roll back regulations for methane and other emissions from the oil and gas industry. The EPA proposed removing some regulations covering methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from transmission and storage sources and processing and production operations. The proposed rule changes will “save the industry millions of dollars in compliance costs each year,” the EPA said, “while maintaining health and environmental regulations on oil and gas sources that the agency considers appropriate.”
RELATED: While state grapples with new methane rules, EPA wants to end some methane emissions limits all together
NMED Secretary James Kenney submitted comments in opposition to the proposal to the EPA Thursday night. Kenney argued the proposed rule “preempts state law while imposing significant burdens upon state environmental agencies.”
“The proposed revisions will significantly degrade air quality and adversely impact public health throughout the U.S., including the State of New Mexico,” Kenney said.
Kenny’s comments came after the EPA held a hearing on the proposal in Dallas last week. Several residents from New Mexico testified at the hearing, as did a representative of NMED.
No one knows exactly how much methane is released into the atmosphere each year in New Mexico. And with record production in oil and gas for the state of New Mexico, and a governor that wants to transition to clean energy, that’s a big problem. According to EPA data, methane makes up just 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.—but it is a particularly potent greenhouse gas, with eighty times the warming power of carbon dioxide. In 2014, the NOAA documented an alarming methane “hotspot” hovering above the Four Corners area. Subsequent research indicated the methane cloud was in fact due to oil and gas production in the region.
On a late March weekend, State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard headed out to the Permian Basin, to visit oil wells on state trust lands. These are wells that churn out profits for corporations, build up the state’s general fund from taxes and royalties and send money to schools and hospitals. Looking through a special camera that detects emissions of volatile organic compounds, Garcia Richard also saw that the wells are sending methane and other pollutants into the air. “There are seemingly innocuous pieces of equipment, tanks, pipes, and then you look at it with the FLIR camera and you can see these clouds of emissions,” the commissioner said. “We went to some older operations, some newer operations, some [wells operated] by some smaller companies, some by larger companies.”