Environmental group calls on NMED to address air pollution from oil and gas

An environmental advocacy group alleges that oil and gas companies across New Mexico are violating state rules by venting large quantities of gas. 

WildEarth Guardians sent a letter to New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney on Thursday requesting that NMED “take immediate steps to end…this illegal air pollution and penalize the companies who are so blatantly flouting public health safeguards.”

The organization analyzed venting from March 1, 2022 to March 1, 2023 and found that at least 60 facilities released levels of volatile organic compounds “to trigger legal clean air thresholds,” according to a press release. “In spite of rules adopted by the Michelle Lujan Grisham administration to limit oil and gas industry venting and protect clean air, the reality is companies are routinely ignoring and violating these rules,” Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, said in the press release. “We need action to confront and deter these violations and for the Environment Department to stop giving the oil and gas industry a free pass to pollute.” 

WildEarth Guardians alleges that companies are failing to obtain proper permits, violating the emission limits in the permits and not reporting excess emissions. The letter highlights several examples, including a company venting more than 400 pounds of volatile organic compounds per hour for four days last fall in Lea County and another company failing to report excess emissions at 10 facilities in the Lybrook and Nageezi area of San Juan County, which is near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Another company reported venting almost every day between March 1, 2022 and March 1, 2023, WildEarth Guardians states.

Oil company to invest $5.5 million in emission prevention following settlement

A major oil and gas producer in the Permian Basin reached a settlement with an environmental advocacy group over emissions at one of the company’s extraction facilities located near Carlsbad. WildEarth Guardians alleged that Occidental Petroleum Company subsidiaries violated Clean Air Act requirements at the Turkey Track Central Tank Battery and Gas Sales Compression Facility in Eddy County. The company agreed to install emission control technology at the Turkey Track site and will invest $5.5 million in reducing emissions at facilities in southeast New Mexico. The company also agreed to pay $500,000 in civil penalties to the U.S. Treasury and $500,000 to support air quality and public health projects in southeast New Mexico. “Today’s agreement is a major step forward for accountability to clean air and public health in New Mexico,” Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, said in a press release.  “We’re pleased that Oxy has agreed to make these major operational changes and resolve excess emissions.

Fish and Wildlife Service releases draft recommended decision for Mexican wolves

A draft recommended decision in the Mexican gray wolf recovery plan would eliminate the population cap and temporarily restrict when a wolf can be killed, but environmental advocates say it still falls short of the reforms needed to ensure genetic diversity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the final supplemental environmental impact statement for the proposed revision for the Mexican gray wolf regulations on Friday along with the draft recommended decision. The final recommended decision will be issued after at least 30 days have passed. 

This action comes following a 90-day public comment period that started in October. The Fish and Wildlife Service said they received more than 82,000 comments. The agency said in a press release that those comments did not result in any substantial changes to the final supplemental environmental impact statement.

Environmental group reaches settlement with Wildlife Services suit over animal killing policies

A federal agency kills thousands of wild animals annually through contracts aimed at protecting livestock and agriculture interests, but a conservation advocacy group hopes a new legal settlement will reduce the number of animals killed in New Mexico. The settlement comes after WildEarth Guardians sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services in October. Wildlife Services is a branch of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. 

In an April 13 press release announcing the settlement, WildEarth Guardians described it as a major win for New Mexico’s wildlife. 

Related: Lawsuit asks Wildlife Services to update its research on ‘outdated’ wildlife management program

In a statement to NM Political Report, Tanya Espinosa, a public affairs specialist with USDA APHIS, said Wildlife Services New Mexico implemented interim measures following the stipulated settlement agreement that was reached in March. 

Espinosa said these measures will remain in place pending an Environmental Assessment. If the EA results in significant findings, an Environmental Impact Statement will be completed. 

“WS-New Mexico is currently developing a new EA for its Predator Damage Management Activities in New Mexico and will make a draft available for public comment,” Espinosa said. Wildlife services last completed an Environmental Assessment for predator damage management in New Mexico in 2006, and WildEarth Guardians argued that scientific knowledge regarding predators has changed in the past 15 years.

Lawsuit asks Wildlife Services to update its research on ‘outdated’ wildlife management program

The conservation-focused WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services agency, challenging the science behind what the group calls an “outdated wildlife-killing program.” The group filed the lawsuit in a federal district court. 

Wildlife Services is a secretive agency within the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that enters into contracts with counties and local governments to remove, euthanize and disperse wildlife that are considered threats to agriculture, livestock and ranching operations. 

Wildlife Services killed over 1.2 million native animals across the U.S. in 2019, including thousands of animals here in New Mexico. The agency is most well-known for its predator control programs, in which federal agents use lethal and nonlethal techniques to remove coyotes, foxes, wolves— including endangered Mexican gray wolves—mountain lions, bears and other predators from areas where those animals threaten livestock. 

RELATED: With mother’s death, the endangered Prieto wolf pack is gone

But the wildlife program extends beyond just predator control. Nationwide, Wildlife Services targets a wide range of wildlife species for removal, including an array of birds such as sandhill cranes, ravens, red-tailed hawks, great blue herons and owls; and mammals such as beavers, rabbits, hares and prairie dogs. 

The impacts of those removals on the natural ecosystems are more or less unknown, according to Chris Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians, because the agency has never completed an environmental impact statement for its program in this state. “Wildlife are the engineers, along with plant species and then microbes and fungi and stuff, that actually make ecosystems function,” said Chris Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “Removing wildlife—and that integral role that they play in ecosystem function—breaks down the way those ecosystems do things like self-manage, clean water, clean air, resupply soils with nutrients, things like that.”

“Especially in an era when droughts and other impacts of the climate crisis are being felt across the west—but especially in dry ecosystems like those in New Mexico—removing those very engineers that make those ecosystems function is problematic,” Smith said.

Oil Conservation Commission agrees to hear proposal for produced water spills

The Oil Conservation Commission agreed Thursday to set a hearing date for a proposed rule that would make spilling produced water illegal. The decision was in response to a petition filed by WildEarth Guardians in September calling on the OCC to adopt rules to make spilling produced water illegal. 

Under the current regulatory framework, oil and gas operators face little to no consequences for spilling the toxic fracking fluid in the state, as long as they report the spill to the Oil Conservation Division. Produced water spills are very common in New Mexico, particularly in the southeastern region of the state in the Permian Basin. In the vast majority of cases, no penalties are assessed against the operator. “Oil and Gas wastewater, aka produced water, is toxic.

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.

Wastewater, wastewater everywhere: In the Permian Basin, a new kind of boom

CARLSBAD — In the Permian Basin, now the most prolific oil field in the world, hundreds of miles of plastic pipelines snake along dirt roads, drilling pads and the edges of farm fields. But they are not carrying oil. Instead, they’re transporting an equally precious commodity in this arid region straddling the New Mexico-Texas border: water. 

“Pipelines are going in everywhere,” said Jim Davis as he drove a camouflage-hued, four-wheeled ATV across his land toward the water station he owns. Selling the water beneath his property to oil and gas companies has given Davis and his wife, who has cancer, a financial security that eluded them for most of their lives. Every day, a steady stream of water trucks flows in and out of his station south of Carlsbad, filling up on his high-quality freshwater — an essential ingredient for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short. 

Davis, whose property has been in his family since 1953, says he’s never seen so much water moving around the basin.

Conservation groups sue Trump admin over changes to Endangered Species Act

Conservation organization WildEarth Guardians and six other environmental and animal protection groups filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over changes it made to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The nonprofit law firm Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, WildEarth Guardians and the Humane Society of the United States. “Nothing in these new rules helps wildlife, period,” said EarthJustice attorney Kristen Boyles, in a statement. “Instead, these regulatory changes seek to make protection and recovery of threatened and endangered species harder and less predictable.”

The lawsuit alleges the administration “failed to publicly disclose and analyze the harms and impacts of these rules,” in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It argues the administration inserted changes into the final rules that “were never made public and not subject to public comment, cutting the American people out of the decision-making process.”

The groups also argue the administration violated the ESA by “unreasonably changing requirements” for compliance with Section 7, a provision of the ESA that requires federal agencies to ensure that actions they authorize do not jeopardize the existence of any species listed, or destroy or adversely modify designated critical habitat of any listed species.

Chaco Canyon BLM

Navajo government officials, environmental groups want review of BLM’s Chaco Canyon leases

Environmental groups and Navajo government officials are criticizing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over the bureau’s handling of oil and gas leases approved in the Greater Chaco area. Navajo leaders and 16 tribal and environmental organizations addressed their concerns in a letter sent to BLM’s New Mexico state director Tim Spisak last week calling for more public hearings on the issue. “We urge you to reject the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Findings of No Significant Impact and Environmental Assessments,” the letter reads. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it approved environmental assessments for five sets of oil and gas wells that did not address the cumulative water impacts of nearly 4,000 horizontal Mancos Shale wells in the Greater Chaco region. The ruling covered environmental assessments approved by BLM for 25 applications to drill in the area.