Today, the New Mexico Oil Conservation Commission (OCC) finalized a new rule proposed by the state’s Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) to limit venting and flaring of methane by the oil and gas industry. The OCC rule marks an important step forward in reducing methane waste, a significant climate pollutant, and holding the oil and gas industry accountable for the tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases it is currently emitting in New Mexico.
Western Environmental Law Center participated in the hearing, representing Conservation Voters New Mexico, Center for Civic Policy, Earthworks, Diné CARE, Natural Resources Defense Council, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Sierra Club, and 350 New Mexico. The coalition successfully advocated for an effective framework to control venting and flaring by achieving two important goals: (1) banning venting and flaring of gas except in limited circumstances and (2) requiring all oil and gas companies to capture 98 percent of methane emissions by 2026.
Importantly, the OCC rule does not mandate finding and fixing methane leaks, a huge source of methane emissions, and leaks are not covered by the OCC rule’s 98 percent capture target. Instead, a separate rule from the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) will target emissions and leaks of methane, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from oil and gas activities. NMED is expected to propose its rule to the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) in May and request a hearing before the board in September.
“Gov. Lujan Grisham has committed to nation-leading methane protections. Today’s strong oil and gas venting and flaring rule is the first step,” said Tannis Fox with the Western Environmental Law Center. “The next and most critical step will be NMED’s proposed air pollution rule, which should seek to rein in industry’s leaks. These leaks not only cause public health harms, but are responsible for 70 percent of methane emissions statewide.”
Unfortunately, NMED’s July 2020 draft rule included huge loopholes that failed to address the majority of the oil and gas industry’s methane and VOC emissions. Given data and information demonstrating that these loopholes do not tackle the harms caused by leaks, we are cautiously optimistic that NMED will substantially strengthen the proposed rule it presents to the EIB in May so New Mexico accomplishes the goal of nation-leading methane protections.
“The final rules passed will provide protections for frontline indigenous communities,” said Mario Atencio of Diné CARE and the Chaco Coalition. “These communities, like the Diné Community of Counselor Chapter, are currently bearing a large amount of the health and safety costs caused by the releases of air toxics under current rules. The rulings will be impactful on the health of the Diné and are a great step to battling global climate change. These rules must not just be applauded but enforced.”
“The OCC’s unanimous vote showed strong support for a strong rule regulating venting and flaring,” said Michael Jensen, communications director for Conservation Voters New Mexico. “The Commission listened to the many voices from frontline communities who live with the impacts from oil and gas pollution every day and asked for this rule. We are hopeful that the Environment Department will take the next step and propose comprehensive rules regulating leaks from oil and gas facilities as part of the Governor’s ambitious executive order on climate change.”
“The final rules reflect that the state of New Mexico is fundamentally responsible for limiting oil and gas pollution harms to climate and health,” said Nathalie Eddy, NM field advocate at Earthworks. “NMED must follow the lead with comprehensive, effective rules that rein in ozone and methane pollution from all operators, otherwise climate goals will be missed and frontline communities will continue to suffer.”
“The oil and gas industry in New Mexico is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector in our economy,” said Mona Blaber of the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter. “To reach the State’s climate change goals, methane emissions must be reduced to the greatest extent possible. The OCC’s rule takes on methane waste by banning routine venting and flaring and limiting emissions. It is now up to the Environment Department to propose a rule that tackles leaks of methane, a mega-contributor to climate change, and other pollutants that most harm frontline communities and vulnerable populations.”
EMNRD has jurisdiction over the waste of methane, including methane waste through venting and flaring of natural gas, because methane is natural gas, an energy source. EMNRD’s rules are promulgated by the New Mexico Oil Conservation Commission (OCC).
NMED has jurisdiction over ozone precursors emitted by oil and gas facilities, although recently gained authority through new legislation to regulate methane directly. NMED’s rules are promulgated by the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board (EIB).
Ozone precursors VOCs and NOx are harmful to public health, while methane is 86 times more potent in the short term than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. Both are emitted by the same types of oil and gas production equipment and practices. In other words, by reducing VOCs and NOx emissions, methane is reduced and vice versa. These emissions fall into three general categories: venting, flaring, and leaks.
Reducing methane from venting, flaring, and leaks is a key element of a more expansive package of federal and state actions required to align oil and gas development with the imperative urged by the climate crisis.
New Mexico is home to some of the worst methane pollution and waste in the nation. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is responsible for about 25% of the climate change we’re already experiencing today. In New Mexico, the oil and gas industry is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 53% of those emissions according to the state’s latest analysis. Additional analysis shows that oil and gas companies release more than 1.1 million tons of methane each year in New Mexico, which has the same climate impacts as about 25 coal-fired power plants. And because methane is the primary component of natural gas, the waste of methane costs the state’s schools upwards of $43 million in royalty and tax revenue annually.
Oil and gas air pollution poses a serious threat to the health of all New Mexicans but disproportionately impacts children, seniors, indigenous communities and those living in rural communities. For example, more than half of all Native Americans in New Mexico’s San Juan County – about 24,600 people – live within a half-mile of a wellsite. Separate studies conducted by Harvard, one part of an ongoing Navajo Health Impact Assessment and another on the relationship between very small particulate matter and Covid-19, showed that long-term exposure to oil and gas well emissions is likely linked to the devastating effects of Covid-19 on the Navajo Nation and in some rural counties more generally.