Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

New Mexico’s heavy dependency on oil and gas money, nearly 40 percent of the state’s budget, has for decades left state governors and legislators hesitant to heavily regulate the industry. This reluctance, or inability, to make or enforce regulations has meant New Mexico now has a methane pollution issue, a produced water waste issue, a massive health issue and a huge economic issue. The boom or bust cycle in the oil and gas industry has continually destabilized the state’s approach to problems like poverty, education and health care.

The environment near oil and gas wells in Four Corners and the Permian Basin is becoming less and less inhabitable. Adding to the economic woes of the state is the almost certain potential for a massive cleanup bill being dumped on it as more and more wells die out over the next decades and operators go belly up, as seen with the brine well in Carlsbad. A lot of additional action is needed in 2021 to achieve New Mexico’s Energy Transition Act (ETA) deadlines or the state will fall short of its goal of being 100 percent carbon-free by 2045.

The New Mexico Climate Change Task Force’s second annual report, released in October, detailing the state’s progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts, showed that to reach reduction goals all sorts of strategies need to be utilized. Among the necessary steps: developing a climate equity foundation working with environmental justice communities, examining regulations and market mechanisms to ensure that all New Mexicans benefit, the need for state regulators to close loopholes for oil and gas methane emissions and the necessity to accelerate decarbonization and create statues targeting ETA deadlines.

Early in November Nathalie Eddy, an Earthworks field advocate, presented her fact-finding tour—which started in the Four Corners area and dropped down to the Permian Basin—at a New Mexican Sierra Club methane webinar. Using a gas-imaging camera, Eddy was able to make visible normally invisible air pollution from oil and gas facilities, consisting of methane and volatile organic compounds that are cancer causing. “I filmed in over 60 sites, responding to requests from members who are living in these areas that have seen, smelled or heard something that was of concern. Other times we found something ourselves,” Eddy said. 

In the past Eddy has filmed significant emissions in the Chaco Canyon area. “During last month’s visit there was more of the same,” she said. “I had my respirator on and smelled really strong odors. I did not stick around for long.” Eddy said a lot of the sites filmed emitting methane are sites that would be exempt under the draft of the newly proposed regulations for the oil and gas industry.

In the other corner of the state in the Permian Basin, Eddy filmed workers on a large compressor station directly exposed to emissions, as none of them were wearing protective respiratory equipment. “We were sitting on the county road and were getting exposed to gas and not feeling well, so we did not stay there long. I can’t imagine what they were experiencing with that proximity and duration of exposure.” Another site where Eddy found “really horrific, strong odors coming off of a tank” was listed on the OCD website as inactive.

Eddy also identified new emission sites from bigger operators; one operated by Apache Oil Company on state lands and another unlit flare at a site operated by Occidental (NYSE:OXY). “These emissions aren’t just from small operators but large operators as well and capable of a lot of pollution. At any given time, in the Permian especially, you can just scan the horizon and see puffs of smoke from miles away,” she said.

Eddy, an international environmental and human rights attorney, said she hasn’t filed complaints yet on what was discovered on her November tour; however, in the past two and a half years, Earthworks has filed 108 complaints with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). “Ninety-three of them resulted in no action and no reduction of emissions. Nine of them did reduce pollution, and six of them resulted in inspections in partnership with EPA. While that is terrible, one ray of sunshine is that the NMED took an unprecedented step to issue letters of potential violation in response to the complaints we filed. This was significant because it shifts the burden to the industry to prove their compliance rather than on us trying to prove their harm. While that is encouraging, the reality is that there are 57,000-plus sites, and the capacity of the regulators is no match for these numbers,” Eddy explained.

“At this point the NMED is limited. They have a gas-imaging camera, but they have no one certified to use it, so they’re not able to use the tool that we use when we’re in the field,” Eddy explained. Her trip reiterated and reinforced that there are methane pollutions everywhere, all the time and at a lot of repeat sites from both large and small operators. “The New Mexico regulators are sorely outnumbered and limited in what they can do. Closing the loopholes in the proposed regulations would be huge, in terms of not exempting so many of the wells and strengthening the New Mexico oversight agencies,” Eddy said. Earthworks most recent report on oil and gas waste is available on their website at earthworks.org.

The New Mexico Methane Map app—developed by NMED and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department—is now available and allows the public to track air quality and venting and flaring data reported by oil and gas operators that’s collected by the state. On Jan. 4, 2021 the Oil Conservation Commission will hold a hearing on gas and oil emissions regulations proposed by the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and its Oil Conservation Division. Public testimony is offered at the start and end of each day of the virtual hearing. Years of underfunding enforcement of regulations will need to be addressed if the state has any hope of compliance with any new regulations.

State of New Mexico
Oil Conservation Commission
Public Rulemaking Hearing/Meeting
Oil and Gas Emissions
Jan. 4 through 15, 2021, 8:30am
emnrd.state.nm.us/OCD/hearings.html

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Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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