By Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, WELC and Jon Goldstein, EDF
Now that the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division has finalized strong new rules governing venting and flaring from oil and gas wells, all eyes are turning to the New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED) companion air quality requirements which are expected to be released for public comment next month. These NMED rules are of critical importance since they govern leaks or fugitive emissions from oil and gas wells that constitute the lion’s share (70 percent) of the oil and gas methane pollution problem in New Mexico.
How comprehensive and strong these NMED rules are will define whether the state can achieve the pollution reductions it needs to protect the health and air quality of local communities as well as Governor Lujan Grisham’s goal of establishing a set of nationally leading requirements.
Here’s what to look for in the next draft of NMED’s air quality rules anticipated to be released in May:
1. Will they be comprehensive and eliminate exemptions?
In order to be effective at reducing pollution to the maximum extent possible, NMED’s rules must apply to as many sources as possible. Unfortunately, the draft released by the department in July 2020 included production and pollution exemptions that would have left the vast majority of wells in New Mexico (and 60 to 70 percent of the oil and gas industry’s methane and smog forming volatile organic compound pollution) unaddressed. This must change in the next draft.
Scientific studies show that low producing wells are a disproportionate source of pollution – in some cases polluting as much as their higher producing counterparts. A recent analysis of NMED’s own flyover data by Clean Air Task Force bore this out, finding that at least 57 percent of sites observed in the Permian Basin with large emissions will be exempt from requirements under the earlier draft NMED rules. These studies demonstrate that controlling low producing wells, such as those NMED proposed to exempt from their rules in the earlier draft proposal, is essential to curbing emissions from oil and gas facilities.
2. Will they protect unfairly disadvantaged communities from pollution?
New Mexico’s highest producing oil and gas counties are struggling with ozone pollution. Eddy and Lea County in southeast New Mexico, and Rio Arriba and San Juan in the northwest, are in danger of exceeding the federal health-based standard for this harmful pollution and the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from wells in these areas are a leading cause.
This fact is prompting NMED to get rules in place to reduce this VOC pollution and protect local communities from ozone pollution’s harmful impacts including asthma that hits children and the elderly particularly hard. But the exemptions proposed in their earlier draft would severely undercut their ability to protect local residents from elevated ozone levels.
What’s more, the proposed exemptions would unfairly impact the demographic groups in these regions that can least afford these burdens. For example, more than 70 percent of kids under five and 45 percent of Native Americans in San Juan County live within a half mile of a well that would have been exempted in NMED’s proposal. Meanwhile, nearly 40 percent of Hispanics and 30 percent of African Americans in Eddy County live in close proximity to wells that would have been exempted. This underlines the need for NMED to craft better rules that offer strong health protections to all New Mexico communities.
3. Will they drive the needed climate pollution reductions?
Getting the NMED rules right is of critical importance to New Mexico climate. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas, more than 80 times more potent pound for pound than carbon dioxide at driving dangerous warming in the near term. And scientists estimate 25 percent of the climate change we are already experiencing – things like increased wildfires, drought and reduced mountain snowpack – are attributable to methane pollution.
All in all, oil and gas methane is the leading cause of climate pollution in New Mexico according to the state’s most recent climate report, responsible for 53 percent of the state’s overall emissions.
These NMED rules will therefore need to be strong and comprehensive in order for New Mexico to begin to bend the curve on reducing climate changing pollution and to stay on track toward Governor Lujan Grisham’s goal of a 45 percent reduction in overall climate pollution by 2030.
The good news is NMED recognizes that improvements to its earlier draft are necessary. Secretary Jim Kenney said in December 2020 that alarming findings of increasing pollution from the New Mexico Permian were “an undeniable call to action for our department to strengthen our draft ozone precursor rules.” And, with the passage of Senate Bill 8 this session granting NMED expanded powers, there is an excellent opportunity to put this newly clarified authority to use buttressing NMED’s ability to do things like fight climate change by regulating methane directly.
And further good news is that economic analysis has shown that comprehensive rules that eliminate exemptions would be cost effective for New Mexico to implement, delivering a 30 percent return on investment for New Mexicans, including $1.2 billion in avoided air quality nonattainment costs and $126 million in human health benefits.
New Mexico has a golden opportunity under Governor Lujan Grisham to create oil and gas air pollution rules that are second to none at protecting communities and our climate from harmful pollution. Please join us in advocating for strong, comprehensive requirements as the NMED rules move forward to a public hearing this summer.