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.
As he stood looking at an orphaned well in Kirtland, U.S. Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh asked, “is this ground dirty here?”
Activist Don Schreiber said yes and Adrienne Sandoval, the Oil Conservation Division Director for the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, confirmed that there was surface contamination in places at the site. Sandoval said the contaminated soil will have to be removed from the site and clean soil will be brought in to replace it. Walsh visited the orphaned well with U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, a New Mexico Democrat who has been pushing for increased funding to assist states with cleaning up orphaned wells. They, and Aztec Mayor Victor Snover, met with Schreiber and Sandoval at the private property where the well is located. Related: Federal lawmakers seek funds to plug orphaned oil and gas wells
The site is one of the hundreds of oil and gas wells in New Mexico that has no operator or responsible party to clean it up.
Nathalie Eddy, a field advocate for Earthworks, the environmental monitoring group, is sitting in her Jeep next to an oil well southwest of Loving, New Mexico, in the Permian Basin. A tangle of well pumping equipment is on one side of the quarter-acre pad. Ten yards away are eight storage tanks, each about the size of a Greyhound bus standing on end. She’s aiming her camera at the top of one of those tanks.
A report indicating that PFAS chemicals have been used in hydraulic fracturing operations in New Mexico “emphasizes how important it is for regulators to know what is in the industrial wastewater,” Maddy Hayden, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Environment Department told NM Political Report in an email. Physicians for Social Responsibility released a report this week that found PFAS chemicals, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or chemicals that could break down into PFAS have been used in fracking operations in 1,200 wells in half a dozen states, including New Mexico. PFAS chemicals have a broad range of applications and can be found in household objects including non-stick cookware. In recent years, there has been growing concern about the potential health impacts of these “forever chemicals,” which do not break down under normal environmental conditions. “Ongoing research into uses of PFAS and the prevalence of these persistent chemicals in the environment is essential to support strong regulatory responses at the federal and state levels,” Hayden said.
When looking for places to sequester carbon, old oil fields may be a promising choice, according to a new study published in the journal Geology. Geophysicists from Stanford University analyzed the Delaware Basin – a sub-basin of the Permian Basin in western Texas and southeastern New Mexico – and found that injecting substances into older oil fields is less likely to cause earthquakes than if the substances are injected into a newer oil field. The geophysicists, No’am Dvory and Mark Zoback, noticed that the southern part of the basin had more seismic activity than the northern part, which has a long history of extraction. The seismic activity is primarily connected to salt water disposal, which occurs throughout the basin, according to Dvory. After creating models, the duo discovered that pore pressures in geologic formations in the northern part of the basin were lower.
As New Mexico looks at an inevitable end to oil and gas extraction, some environmental advocates say no new leases should be issued and the United States should work to phase out fossil fuels. This would not have a huge immediate impact on the state, but could result in less revenue and fewer jobs in the future, experts say. President Joe Biden and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a former congresswoman from New Mexico, issued orders in January pausing both leasing and permitting to enable a robust review of the federal processes. The pause in permitting ended after 60 days, but the leasing pause continued until a federal judge issued a temporary injunction earlier this month. The vast majority of federal land available for leasing in New Mexico is already leased for oil and gas production, which limited the impact that the leasing moratorium had on the state.
“It’s not as if the bottom is going to fall out because of the moratorium,” Kayley Shoup of Citizens Caring for the Future said in a Zoom call hosted by the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter this week.
In mid-June, a federal judge in Louisiana blocked the Biden administration’s 5-month-old pause on new oil and gas lease sales on federal lands and waters. But in New Mexico, where the state’s Democratic governor had requested an exemption to the pause, the tension over leases highlights how tricky it is for petroleum-dependent states to transition away from the historically rich revenue stream. This story originally appeared at Capital & Main and is republished with permission. It’s not yet clear how the judge’s order will play out, but the pause had already led to a dustup among state legislators and an unusual alliance across the upper levels of the state’s deeply polarized political parties. “There’s not a whole lot of common ground, at least with myself and the governor,” says state Sen. Greg Baca, the Republican minority floor leader.
Sen. Martin Heinrich announced Thursday plans to introduce legislation that would help areas that depend on revenue from fossil fuels maintain balanced government and education budgets as the country moves toward a clean energy economy. Known as the Schools and State Budgets Certainty Act, the bill would provide funding to offset the loss of revenue if money from fossil fuel extraction drops. The bill would create a baseline minimal revenue for governments based on the historical average revenue the governments received from federal minerals. If the revenue drops below the baseline, the governments would receive an energy transition payment to offset that loss. These payments will be made to eligible states, counties and tribes and would provide some budget certainty during the transition away from fossil fuels.
As the northwest corner of New Mexico prepares for the closure of the San Juan Generating Station, at least one proposed project to help displaced workers could lead to increased natural gas extraction. Last year, the Energy Transition Act committee sent out a request for information on projects that could be funded through the portions of bonds that could be set aside for economic diversification, workforce training and assisting the Navajo Nation. This resulted in more than two dozen proposals, however the funding is not yet available due to a lawsuit that has postponed the sale of low-interest bonds.
The lawsuit in the New Mexico Supreme Court argues that shareholders should bear more of the costs of closing the power plant instead of ratepayers, who currently will pay for the bonds through a non-bypassable charge on their bills. The bonds will be sold by Public Service Company of New Mexico, the primary owner of the San Juan Generating Station, and will use $360 million of bonds to refinance past investments into the power plant and about $20 million of that money will be used to assist the communities impacted by the closure.
Jason Sandel, a convener for the ETA committee, said there will be a meeting this summer to discuss the proposed projects. A full list of projects submitted for funding consideration and details about each of the projects can be found at dws.nm.state.us/ETA.
Carol Davis, the director of the environmental advocacy group Diné CARE, recalled spending a few days camping near Counselor, New Mexico with other members of the advocacy group a few years ago and feeling sick from the emissions related to oil and gas production. “For me, being in a region where there’s just that air pollution, I seriously was getting headaches, feeling nauseous, and it’s just amazing that people have lived there for so long in an area where they’re exposed to that kind of pollution,” she said, adding that she had a panic attack that night. After researching the health impacts of emissions like methane, she said she realized the symptoms were not unusual. A recent report by the Environmental Defense Fund found that 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas, consisting primarily of methane, is released into the atmosphere each year from oil and gas operations on Navajo Nation lands. EDF argues this wastes a valuable commodity leading to the loss of $1.2 million of royalties and taxes to the tribe annually.