Environmental advocates praise adoption of final methane waste rule

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.

Environment Department says they need more funds for inspections, more

New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney told state lawmakers his agency needs more staffing to inspect worker safety violations, ensure businesses are preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus and better protect the state’s air and water quality. Kenney implored members of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday to approve a $3.7 million increase in the Environment Department’s budget for fiscal year 2022, saying it would beef up understaffed teams that probe workplace safety issues. 

The increase would raise the agency’s general fund budget to $16.8 million and be on par with the 28 percent bump the governor has proposed. 

“That is, all things considered, a very modest increase,” Kenney said. “That investment in the Environment Department — $3.7 million — will definitely save lives [and] protect public health and the environment.” 

In all, the agency’s revenue last year was $90.7 million, counting grants and fees collected.  

The Legislative Finance Committee recommended keeping the agency’s general fund allocations the same as last year’s, which Kenney argued was not enough to provide effective oversight.  

Kenney said the requested funding increase is the difference between the agency being able to investigate workplace complaints and deaths and leaving those incidents unchecked. 

Probing workplace violations through the state office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is imperative in New Mexico, where worker deaths are 77 percent higher than the national average, Kenney told the committee. 

The agency’s budget was cut by 42 percent in the last three years that former Gov. Susana Martinez was in office, Kenney said. It has regained about 22 percent of its spending but is still operating at a lower funding level than it requires, he said. 

The agency has a vacancy rate of 17.7 percent, which adds up to 63 jobs that should be filled, Kenney said. 

None of the committee members spoke against the requested increase. 

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, expressed strong support, saying the agency’s mission should be a priority in New Mexico. 

The committee is considering hefty increases in spending on economic development and tourism, he said. 

“And those are great things, but I would hope we’d all agree that environmental protection and protecting public health are at least equally important,” Steinborn said. 

Subpar environmental oversight can hurt economic development because companies don’t want to locate in places that are unhealthy and unsafe, he added. The proposed budget includes a $1.7 million for rapid responses to workplaces where one or more employees tested positive for COVID-19.

State environmental regulators face thinner budgets amid pandemic and oil slump

New Mexico’s environmental and oil and gas regulators are facing budget cuts for the next fiscal year, as nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic and a significant downturn in the oil market has depleted the state’s budget. 

The budget reductions come after years of attrition in regulatory budgets under the Susana Martinez administration. The New Mexico Environment Department’s budget was cut by 32 percent between fiscal years (FY) 2012 and 2019, which was the last fiscal year budget passed by the legislature in 2018 before Martinez left office, according to a report released by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. The Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) saw its budget drop roughly 24 percent under the Martinez administration between fiscal years 2012 and 2019. 

In Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s first budget proposal for FY2020, NMED’s general fund increased 6 percent compared to FY2019, while EMNRD saw a 9 percent increase in fiscal year 2020 over 2019. The departments saw similar increases in the FY2021 budget. But some of that progress will be reversed as the state grapples with the fiscal ramifications of a nearly year-long public health emergency and an oil boom bust. 

NMED to cut back on some services

NMED submitted a $89.2 million budget request for fiscal year 2022.

As methane rulemaking progresses, questions about exemptions linger

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.

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.

Cannon Air Force Base to pay $250k for PFAS permit violations; contamination cleanup slow

Cannon Air Force Base will pay a $251,000 “administrative fee” to the state in lieu of the $1.7 million fine that the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) imposed on the Air Force earlier this year for alleged permit violations related to PFAS contamination.  

PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are toxic, human-manufactured chemicals that can move through groundwater and biological systems. Human exposure to PFAS increases the risk of testicular, kidney and thyroid cancers as well as other severe illnesses. The chemicals were used in firefighting foam in military bases across the country, including at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases, until 2016. The Air Force began investigating PFAS discharges across its installations in 2015, and the chemicals were detected in 2018 in groundwater at Cannon Air Force Base, located west of Clovis in Eastern New Mexico and at Holloman Air Force Base, located west of Alamogordo in Southern New Mexico. The pollutants have also been detected at several dairy farms and private wells that surround the bases. 

RELATED: ‘Everyone is watching New Mexico’: Update shows no progress on PFAS clean up

In January, NMED fined the Air Force $1.7 million for multiple violations of state law regarding PFAS chemicals at Cannon Air Force Base and issued an administrative compliance order to the Air Force for unlawfully discharging wastewater without a groundwater permit at Cannon Air Force Base since April 1, 2019, after the permit expired at the end of March. 

At the time, NMED said it may assess penalties of up to $25,000 per day for “continued noncompliance.” 

Last week, the Water Quality Control Commission approved a settlement agreement between NMED and the Air Force over the permit violations. The Air Force submitted its permit renewal documents on January 15, 2020, five days after the compliance order was issued. 

The permit renewal has not yet been approved, but NMED and the Air Force reached a settlement agreement that allows the Air Force to continue operating and discharging effluent from its wastewater treatment facility in the meantime. 

The two parties also agreed that the Air Force would pay an administrative fee of $250,947.60 to NMED instead of the $1.7 million fine, thereby resolving the compliance order “in compromise” and “to avoid further legal proceedings,” the settlement agreement states. 

An NMED spokesperson confirmed that the $251,000 fee and settlement agreement is “entirely limited to the Department’s January 2020 administrative compliance order for violations of groundwater discharge permitting program requirements.” The settlement has no bearing on litigation between the state and the U.S. Department of Defense related to PFAS contamination at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases “caused by decades of use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams,” according to NMED. 

RELATED: New Mexico joins multidistrict litigation against firefighting foam manufacturers for PFAS contamination

“Unfortunately, federal facilities in New Mexico have a history of disregarding state environmental laws,” said NMED Secretary James Kenney in a statement.

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.

New Mexico joins multidistrict litigation against firefighting foam manufacturers for PFAS contamination

The state of New Mexico has joined a multidistrict litigation against the manufacturers of the aqueous film-forming foams that were used in firefighting activities across the country and in Air Force Bases in New Mexico which led to groundwater contamination. 

A U.S. judicial panel earlier this year flagged the state’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense over the contamination for inclusion in the multidistrict tort proceeding, which encompasses roughly 500 pending cases related to PFAS contamination. The litigation will be heard in a U.S. District Court in South Carolina. “That’s a recent development,” said Chris Atencio, Assistant General Counsel at the New Mexico Environment Department. “We’ve gone through that process and our case is now included in that. We’re working with our council, the Attorney General’s office and folks internally to try to evaluate the requirements of that process and how best to proceed.

COVID-19 stopped some LANL environmental monitoring

The state’s public health order prompted by COVID-19 has stopped some monitoring on whether and how much Los Alamos National Laboratory is releasing radioactive materials, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals into the surrounding air and water. The Department of Energy Oversight Bureau with the New Mexico Environment Department tests air, water, vegetation, and wildlife for signs of legacy waste near LANL, but COVID-19 restrictions stopped that sample collection beginning March 13. The Bureau of Hazardous Waste monitors use, storage, and movement of radioactive and hazardous waste from the lab, including the project slowing the spread of chromium-6, a carcinogen, from lab property into the water supply for Los Alamos County and San Ildefonso Pueblo, and says that project was also put on hold. While answering written questions from the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, the LANL Legacy Cleanup Technical Working Group disclosed that N3B, which manages the legacy cleanup contract for the Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management and Los Alamos Field Office, stopped collecting water samples in March. The state is working with LANL to develop guidelines on masks, gloves, and distance to resume sampling.

Ranchers, researchers mull using treated produced water for irrigation

John Norris is worried about where he’s going to get water in the future. Norris is a rancher in southeast New Mexico, where he runs calf-cow and yearling operations. 

“Our water comes from the Ogallala [aquifer]. We’re basically mining this water, whenever it’s gone our water source is going to be gone,” Norris said, adding that in drought years his fields dry up and the grass doesn’t grow. 

“Water is the lifeblood of what we do. It’s very important to me to look for a new water source for the future to be sustainable,” he said. “Sometimes we need just a little bit of water to make it through.”

Related: Amid groundwater declines, water data gains importance

There’s a chance Norris could someday use recycled produced water to help irrigate his ranchland. 

Produced water is an abundant wastewater byproduct of oil and gas extraction activities, including fracking.