Signs of progress on cleaning up methane

By Camilla Feibelman, Rio Grande Chapter director

As the Trump administration reverses critical pollution safeguards, New Mexico is taking up the slack, announcing it will create rules to slash climate-damaging methane pollution from its booming oil and gas industry.

According to EDF, the 1 million metric tons of methane wasted by the New Mexico oil and gas industry has the same short-term impacts as 22 coal-fired power plants or 28 million automobiles. While that’s only part of the total climate pollution that extraction in greater Chaco and Carlsbad produces, it’s a problem we can solve now, with existing technology, improving health conditions for people living in close proximity to oil and gas operations.

When NASA discovered a methane cloud the size of Delaware over the Four Corners region in 2014, an array of groups convened to address the issue from a climate, health and waste perspective. Our hope was that national rules that were later enacted by the Obama Administration would force industry to take basic, good-neighbor actions in our state, especially because companies are removing a public resource from public lands for their own profit.

But the Trump Administration has gutted these rules, undermining our commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement. Though we continue to fight in court, Trump’s EPA is now challenging its own authority to regulate methane after reversing leak, detection and repair requirements in the original rule.

So now, our New Mexico communities are confronted with not only the climate impacts of wasted methane oil and gas leaks, vents or flares but also the hundreds of thousands of tons of smog-producing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can trigger asthma attacks and worsen other respiratory diseases such as emphysema.

Rural counties including Eddy, Lea, San Juan, Rio Arriba and Chavez — home to 97 percent of the state’s oil and gas wells — are all at risk of violating federal ozone standards. A recent study funded by Environmental Defense Fund, Diné CARE, Native American Voters Alliance and Grand Canyon Trust showed that tribal communities suffer from disproportionately high pollution levels.

Oil and gas operations also release hazardous air pollutants such as benzene and toluene that are proven to cause cancer, putting those living close to oil and gas operations at the greatest risk. More than 130,000 New Mexicans live within a half-mile of oil and gas development.

But there is hope. In January, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced her intent to make New Mexico a national leader in cutting methane waste and pollution by adopting rules “to eclipse states that are successfully doing this work.” In June her administration announced the beginning of the process to create methane-reducing rules. Republican- and Democratic-leaning states across the U.S. have proved these solutions are a win for the environment and economy. Colorado, Wyoming, Penssylvania and Ohio all have state rules.

Make your voice heard for strong methane safeguards by attending any of three stakeholder meetings the state is hosting in July:

  • 1-5 p.m. July 29, San Juan Community College, Farmington
  • 1-5 p.m. July 30, University of New Mexico School of Law, Albuquerque
  • 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Aug. 7, Nuclear Waste Partnership Building, Carlsbad

In Farmington and Albuquerque we’ll provide lunch and orientation for those who are interested. In Carlsbad there will be an orientation on the 5th. Please email miya.king-flaherty@sierraclub.org if you’d like to attend or for more information.

Featured image by Daniel Tso. Operators burn off methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, in the process of fracking. Oil and gas facilities leak and flare enough to heat every one run new Mexico. 

Signs of progress on cleaning up methane
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