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.
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.