One-time Opportunity: Protect New Mexicans from Harmful Oil & Gas Pollution

The Lujan Grisham Administration Has a Once-in-Lifetime Opportunity to Protect New Mexicans from Harmful Oil & Gas Pollution, But Action is Needed

By Camilla Feibelman and Erik Schlenker-Goodrich

On Wednesday, our groups joined hundreds of others in urging Gov. Lujan Grisham’s state agencies to take advantage of the opportunity to slash our state’s climate pollution and make our air healthier 

Yesterday, we joined national, state, and local groups and hundreds of people to call on the Lujan Grisham Administration to strengthen draft rules proposed by her administration to clean up methane waste and the dangerous pollutants from oil and gas extraction.

Methane is a powerful climate pollutant, 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a critical near-term time frame. Oil and gas producers leak, vent, and flare so much methane that the wasted methane – the primary ingredient in natural gas – could heat every home in New Mexico every single year. And the volatile organic compounds, or “VOCs,” that leak alongside methane at oil and gas facilities cause smog that exacerbates asthma and other respiratory diseases that many New Mexicans suffer from.

This is important: we wrote our comments as wildfires raged across more than five million acres of California, Oregon, and Washington state, glaciers shattered and disintegrated from Greenland’s largest remaining ice shelf, hurricanes spun across the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, and New Mexico is seeing extreme drought conditions in every corner of the state. The climate crisis is not simply a future risk, but a lived reality that harms us and contributes to persistent environmental injustice. This crisis is now magnified by the ravages of COVID-19 and the financial hardship of families caused by a struggling economy.

We called on the Lujan Grisham administration with a simple message: Act with vision and ambition. The window of opportunity to address the climate crisis at the scale necessary to prevent massive suffering is closing, and the Lujan Grisham administration must act in full recognition of this sobering reality, serving as champions of people, not industry.

The problem and opportunity

We’ve known for years oil and gas air pollution and waste is a vast and growing problem in New Mexico. In counties with active oil and gas operations, New Mexico’s air quality is deteriorating with rising levels of ozone pollution, and our state is home to some of the worst methane pollution in the nation.

Fortunately, Governor Lujan Grisham has committed to adopting nation-leading oil and gas rules to cut methane and air pollution. Unfortunately, draft rules put forward by the New Mexico Environment Department and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department fall short of that goal. To protect the health of New Mexico families and our climate, these agencies must make critical changes to close loopholes and that would effectively exempt 95% of all wells in New Mexico and seriously ratchet up their vision and ambition.

Why it matters for New Mexico to get this right

As people connected to the land, water, and sky, New Mexicans witness firsthand the price of inaction on methane and climate. Our summers are hotter and longer, impacting harmful ground-level ozone and contributing to more frequent and severe drought that impacts farms and ranches and dries out forests and rivers. It also puts our state at grave risk to more severe wildfires and impacts to our rivers and streams.

Adding insult to injury, the Trump administration has used the pandemic as an excuse to accelerate its reckless campaign to roll back at least 100 bedrock environmental and health safeguards. Indeed, in just the past month, the Trump administration gutted federal methane protections that have been in place since 2016. These rollbacks demand strong, unequivocal state action to protect our communities from oil and gas pollution and to fill the vacuum of climate leadership in Washington, D.C..

Even as emissions of methane threaten the stability of the climate system, emissions of ozone smog-precursors including VOCs and nitrogen oxides, or NOx, threaten regional and local air quality. Seven counties in the state of New Mexico, including all of the major oil-and-gas producing counties (Eddy, Lea, San Juan, and Rio Arriba), are currently at or above 95% of the national air-quality standard for ozone.

Oil and gas pollution threatens New Mexicans’ health and welfare, with children, elderly individuals, and adults with asthma and other respiratory conditions facing an especially high risk of adverse health impacts. Oil-and-gas pollution is a major contributor to New Mexico’s ozone problem, meaning actions to protect New Mexicans from this ozone pollution must address these sources first and foremost.

Improving the Environment Department Air Pollution Rule

We were deeply disappointed that the Environment Department’s rule sought to exempt the vast majority of wells in New Mexico from leak detection and repair requirements – one of the most effective ways to limit harmful oil and gas pollution. Two proposed exemptions – one for low-producing or stripper wells and the other for sites below a 15-ton-per-year pollution threshold – would collectively cause pollution from 95% of the wells in New Mexico to go unchecked. This is unacceptable, and the Environment Department should remove these loopholes.

This isn’t just a wonky, technocratic fight. The exemptions would disproportionately affect children as well as Navajo and Latino communities who are much more likely to live within a half mile of a well in oil and gas-producing counties. In fact, almost half of all Native Americans in San Juan County live within a mile of an exempted wellsite as well as 72% of kids under 5. Strong, comprehensive air pollution and methane rules are critical to safeguard our climate and secure environmental justice for the Navajo Nation and for all New Mexicans.

Tragically, the COVID-19 crisis shines an even brighter light on our air quality. Air pollution exacerbates lung disease such as asthma and emphysema and can lead to heart disease. As the Centers for Disease Control warns, people with underlying health conditions are at the most risk of serious complications and adverse outcomes from COVID-19. We must protect our health and our climate in this confluence of climate and pandemic crises.

We thus call on the Environment Department to get this right and not expect other agencies, such as EMNRD, to cover for any shortcomings. Unless the Environment Department eliminates the exemptions for stripper wells and smaller facilities, we sadly conclude that its rule would be the nation’s least effective oil and gas rule to reduce ozone pollution and the methane pollution that is emitted along with it.

Improving EMNRD’s Methane Waste Rule

We’re more pleased with EMNRD’s draft rule. While it still needs work, it proposes a sensible approach to reduce methane waste that can go a long way toward curtailing New Mexico’s $275 million per year methane waste problem. That’s because every metric ton of methane wasted to the atmosphere is a metric ton of natural gas that can’t be sold. With the following critical changes, EMNRD’s rule could rightly be described as nation-leading:

  • OCD has set an appropriate goal that each operator capture at least 98% of all gas by 2026 statewide. That’s pretty good. But we can prevent far more waste and protect against air quality, public health, and environment by setting that requirement at a local, community-level scale, such as by county. This ensures that oil and gas companies take action everywhere in New Mexico, protecting the tens of thousands of people, in particular Navajo, Hispanic, and Latino people, who live in close proximity to oil and gas development.
  • OCD should prohibit all venting of natural gas from all oil and gas wells and prohibit routine flaring from new oil and gas wells, taking action to also phase out flaring from existing oil and gas wells over a tight timeframe. In 2019, operators flared over 30 Bcf, which would have supplied enough gas to meet the home heating and cooking needs of 80% of New Mexico households for the year. That’s just unacceptable.
  • OCD shouldn’t let oil and gas operators make the methane waste problem worse before they start clean up their waste from existing oil and gas wells. Operators that can’t capture at least 90% of their natural gas in the first year of the rule, and operators that don’t work actively to meet the 98% requirement, shouldn’t be entitled to spend money on drilling new oil and gas wells. Instead, they should direct that money to clean up their existing wells.
  • The Oil Conservation Division should ramp up its enforcement tools. For too long, the oil and gas industry has called the shots in New Mexico. The Oil Conservation Division should not hesitate to shut in oil and gas wells from oil and gas companies that don’t play by the rules or otherwise hold those companies accountable.

Finalizing Rules New Mexico Can Be Proud Of

While much work remains, the Environment Department and Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department still have an excellent opportunity to fix the issues with these draft proposals and finalize requirements that will fulfill Governor Lujan Grisham’s goal of establishing nationally leading rules. We commend them for putting these proposals forward for public comment, even as we call on them to strengthen these draft rules with the vision and ambition that New Mexicans demand. The time is now for action commensurate to the scale of the climate crisis and to protect New Mexico’s communities.

Supporting documents

Sierra Club, Clean Air Task Force, et al comments

Western Environmental Law Center comments

One-time Opportunity: Protect New Mexicans from Harmful Oil & Gas Pollution
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