NM Needs a “Here I Come To Save The Day” Moment

New Mexico was recently identified as having the largest methane cloud in the country. The closer you get to the Permian Basin, the most prolific oil field in the world, the more apparent the smell of the oil and gas industry becomes. And it’s just beginning. Some experts say that at peak production in 2032 the Permian Basin will produce more oil and natural gas than Saudi Arabia. Move in a little closer into the basin and you will see the hundreds of miles of plastic pipelines endlessly crisscrossing the basin carrying toxic water produced by the oil and gas industry.

Having the Permian Basin in New Mexico’s backyard has been a financial boom and has catapulted it into being the third-largest oil-producing state in the country, with 300 million barrels produced in 2019. State legislators are finally ready, with support of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s executive order, to deal with the dark side of the financial boom. They hope to accomplish that by creating new rules and regulations for the oil and gas industry to curb pollution that is threatening the way of life for many New Mexicans and the Navajo Nation.

Since the first oil well drilling in 1922, the industry has been an important segment of New Mexico’s economy and has become a very powerful force in the state’s politics. Revenues generated from oil and gas activity soared to a record $3.1 billion in fiscal year 2019, up 41 percent from the $2.2 billion generated the year before, according to the latest annual report from the New Mexico Tax Research Institute.

The oil and gas industry has spent a lot of money encouraging state lawmakers to listen closely to what they want. A “Connect the Dots” report from Common Cause New Mexico and New Mexico Ethics Watch in March 2020 documented approximately $4.3 million in direct contributions from the oil and gas industry to New Mexico candidates, committees and PACs from 2017 to 2020. Another $3.75 million came from the industry’s lobbyists. Industry-
related PACs have spent $3.4 million. If lobbyist compensation were included, the amount would increase dramatically. Currently, New Mexico does not require this disclosure.

For over three decades, individuals, organizations and reservations have been pleading with our state government to keep the Land of Enchantment skies clear blue, its land unpolluted and its scarce water clean. They have a loud, clear, collective voice that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. The Paper. recently spoke with several of these collective voices.

Nathalie Eddy, the Colorado and New Mexico field advocate for the environmental group Earthworks, said sites she went to last week—which she had filed complaints on two and a half years ago—looked exactly the same, even with the downturn in the oil and gas industry from COVID. “It’s more of the same Wild, Wild West conditions in the field.” According to Eddy, the stripper wells that are really low producers have been venting for decades. “That’s bad news for the communities who live nearby, the climate and any hope that any of these sites will ever return to anything other than just a wasteland,” she said.

Eddy, an international environmental and human rights attorney with expertise in air quality and climate change policies, said the oil and gas industry presents a pretty unsurmountable enforcement challenge, even once the rules change. She said the State of New Mexico needs to stop issuing new drilling and air permits. “They need to deal with the mess that they’ve created thus far. I think there’s a disconnect,” Eddy explained. “They are issuing more permits, and they can’t even monitor what they have.”

Mike Eisenfeld with the San Juan Citizens Alliance was part of the states’ Methane Advisory Panel, trying to identify ways to reduce methane emissions. “There’s a responsibility associated with what gas companies are supposed to do as part of their ability to build those projects in the first place,” he said. “The argument always around is, ‘Don’t impose too many regulations on industry or you will drive them away.’ ” Eisenfeld said it’s incumbent upon the gas industry to take responsibility for their facilities. “There shouldn’t be any exemptions. I think that we need to quantify what the problems are, and they fix them. That’s part of their responsibility with operating oil and gas facilities within our communities.

Robyn Jackson, climate and energy outreach coordinator with the Diné C.A.R.E, a Navajo Nation organization, told The Paper. there are a lot of important issues relating to oil and gas extraction. This is especially true on the eastern side of the Navajo Nation, which is a checkerboard with the Navajo Reservation, private land and BLM land. “This makes oil and gas issues and regulations much more complicated,” she said. “New Mexico has a long history of oil and gas extraction where, after a time, wells are not maintained, they’re abandoned. They can emit a number of toxic emissions that are harmful if they’re not regulated to a certain standard.”

Jackson is concerned some of exemptions sought by the oil and gas industry to proposed rule changes would create a huge issue. “If they’re not kept in check, then they can be a big source of methane emissions. There are a lot of environmental justice concerns, environmental health concerns, water usage concerns that the communities we work with often bring up that need to be addressed,” she said.The checkerboard water issue is especially concerning for the Navajo people. “You have drainage onto property that you don’t have wells on in the Navajo Nation from another’s property into the reservation. If it’s a real small company, they may not have the large investment that’s needed to replace and repair things. We’ve got to start cleaning up. I get it. It’s a lot of money. But guys, you’re running out of oil. We have to plan ahead. You need to clean up. You need to clean up as we go along. You know, you haven’t been doing it all along; but guess what? It’s time.” [ ]