New environmental crimes task force will help leverage resources

The head of the New Mexico Environment Department says a new environmental crimes task force will help the state better leverage resources to go after people who are polluting the environment and placing communities at risk. With agencies like NMED being underfunded, leveraging resources is important, Secretary James Kenney said. Kenney said he was familiar with environmental crimes task forces from his time in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He said the EPA partners with several other states on such task forces. After more than a year of working with federal, tribal  and state partners, NMED announced the creation of New Mexico’s first environmental crimes task force on Nov.

Amid international climate conference, EPA announces proposal for cutting methane emissions

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released new draft rules to limit methane emissions from the oil and gas sector on Friday during the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP27. The draft rule released Friday builds upon a previous draft rule released last year. Environmental advocates say that the proposal is strong, but could be stronger. Many groups said further restrictions or elimination of routine flaring are needed. Full text of the draft rule can be found here. 

“Ozone pollution and climate impacts from methane emissions pose a serious threat to our people.

EPA, state reach settlement over Gold King Mine spill

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to pay the state of New Mexico $32 million as part of a settlement announced Thursday in the Gold King Mine spill case. In August 2015, EPA crews triggered a mine spill in Colorado that sent heavy-metal laden water into the Animas River, which flows through northwest New Mexico. “There were failures in the system and there were a lot of questions and there was a lot of fear in this community,” Attorney General Hector Balderas said. “I still remember coming in that day, and it was chaotic.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Balderas, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney and EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe met with reporters and community leaders at the Farmington Museum to announce the settlement. Balderas said that, in the wake of the mine spill, New Mexico officials realized “the state was going to have to get into a fistfight to really be a voice and to assess damages.”

While EPA Administrator Michael Regan did not attend the event, the agency sent out a statement following the announcement.

Activists are hopeful that EPA proposed methane regulations will reduce emissions

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.

Ranchers, conservation groups unhappy with the new clean water rule, but for different reasons

The Donald Trump administration only finalized its new clean water rule a few days ago and the regulation is already being challenged in federal court by ranchers, conservation groups and state governments. 

The conservation-focused New Mexico Wilderness Alliance joined a coalition of conservation groups that allege the new rule goes too far in gutting protections for many streams and wetlands in New Mexico and across the country. 

The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, on the other hand, also filed a lawsuit against the administration, arguing that the new rule doesn’t go far enough in rolling back those protections. 

RELATED: EPA rolls back water protections for seasonal rivers and streams

Ephemeral and intermittent waters make up the meat of the rule change and its challenges. Previous versions of the clean water rule included ephemeral and intermittent streams, which only flow in response to precipitation events such as torrential rains or snowpack melt. The Trump administration’s version of the rule removes protections for all ephemeral streams and some intermittent waterways and wetlands. For New Mexico’s landscape, those terms define up to 90 percent of the state’s surface water. 

“It’s a bold step by the EPA to do this,” Tony Francois, senior attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, and who is representing the Cattle Growers Association, told NM Political Report. “They’re in for a lot of controversy and criticism for doing it.” 

A history lesson in defining WOTUS

The Clean Water Act’s regulations have been controversial since day one, mostly because the federal government has had a hard time delineating which waters should and should not be regulated at the federal level, as determined by the regulatory definition of “waters of the United States,” also known as WOTUS. 

Due to ambiguity in the original 1986 clean water rule, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers used their own interpretations of the term for years in their respective regulatory roles. In 2001 and 2006, the Supreme Court weighed in on the definition in two separate decisions, but no clear majority opinion emerged from those cases. 

“Those [regulations] were very expansive, they basically regulated all tributaries, without any qualifications, and that included ephemeral tributaries, basically any place where water would drain where it rained,” Francois said. 

Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a new rule in 2015 that attempted to clarify its boundaries using the “significant nexus” test, an idea proposed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Kennedy in the 2006 case.

Critics question EPA decision to not enforce some regulations

Environmental groups and conservation advocates are reeling after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it will no longer enforce some of its regulations during the coronavirus pandemic. The EPA issued Wednesday a “temporary policy” regarding enforcement of environmental legal obligations during the pandemic that applies to civil violations “during the COVID-19 outbreak.” The enforcement policy is back-dated to March 13. The EPA said during the pandemic that it won’t enforce noncompliance of routine monitoring, reporting obligations and other regulations but said it “expects regulated facilities to comply with regulatory requirements, where reasonably practicable, and to return to compliance as quickly as possible.” The policy has no end date. “EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, in a statement. “This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment.”

The rule change comes after an industry group called for leniency in compliance during this time.

While state grapples with new methane rules, EPA wants to end some methane emissions limits all together

The EPA’s newly proposed methane regulation revisions drew criticism from oil and gas companies and environmentalists alike and spurred some groups in New Mexico to redouble efforts to pressure state officials adopt more stringent rules for methane emissions in the state. Last week, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler proposed updates to federal air quality regulations for the oil and gas industry that would remove limits on methane emissions from production and processing operations and would remove regulations all together for methane emissions coming from transmission and storage sources of oil and gas production. 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.”

“EPA’s proposal delivers on President Trump’s executive order and removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Since 1990, natural gas production in the United States has almost doubled while methane emissions across the natural gas industry have fallen by nearly 15%. Our regulations should not stifle this innovation and progress.”

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall described the proposed changes as a “backwards move in face of climate crisis,” in a statement released last week. 

“EPA’s decision today is an affront to New Mexicans and people across this country who have a right to clean air.

Confusion reigns in calculating methane emissions

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.

Amigos Bravos

Group says it will sue EPA over stormwater pollution in Los Alamos

A Taos-based water conservation group has been waiting for the EPA to make a decision about a stormwater permit for over five years, while pollution coming from urban stormwater runoff in Los Alamos County, the group alleges, continues to threaten water quality standards. Amigos Bravos wants a final determination from the EPA in response to a petition it filed with the agency back in 2014. “It’s been 1,833 days since we petitioned,” Rachel Conn, projects director at Amigos Bravos, said in an interview. “Under the regulations, they are supposed to respond within 180 days. So, we are close to two thousand days overdue.”

In June, the organization filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA over the failure to act.

Feds continue environmental rollbacks with new methane emissions rule

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.