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

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On Jan. 4 beekeepers, mothers, teachers, health care professionals, tribal members, politicians, religious leaders and environmentalists nearly spoke as one voice all day at the Oil Conservation Commission’s (OCC) hearing on methane emissions. Methane is the main component of natural gas and is emitted with other contaminants that cause smog pollution and threaten public health. Many in this very diverse group have worked for years to get stronger methane rules on pollution emissions in place, both on a federal and state level. Comment after comment was given during a two-minute allotment slot with each speaker addressing similar, if not mirror-like, concepts for the improvement of the proposed methane emission rules.

The OCC virtual hearing on gas and oil emission regulations proposed by the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and its Oil Conservation Division (OCD) is expected to last at least a week. Public testimony will be offered each day of the hearing. The rulemaking process, initiated by Governor Lujan Grisham’s 2019 Executive Order, committed the state to creating nation-leading rules on methane and ozone emissions. The current proposed rules have had input from the public, environmentalists, state agencies, scientists and experts from the oil and gas industry.

The Obama Administration crafted rules designed to regulate oil and gas waste and pollution; however, those protections were gutted by the Trump Administration and replaced with rules unsupported in science. This back-and-forth on the federal level of emission rules has left states exposed and realizing their need to create or update existing rules and regulations to protect themselves from any future federal changes.

Those who spoke at the hearing on Jan. 4 called for the OCC to adopt a stronger role in protecting the health and environment of New Mexicans. Among the proposed protections: a five-year target where oil and gas companies capture 98 percent of methane by 2026, holding oil and gas companies accountable for reducing methane, new permits denied for new wells to be drilled if operators are out of compliance with gas capture requirements, third-party verification for repairs, changing the loophole that exempts wells that produce less than 15 barrels a day or 95 percent of all wells in New Mexico from regulations, addressing the need for operators to inform the public who is at risk about methane released and improved transparency by improving state reporting and public notice requirements.

Robyn Jackson, with the Navajo organization Diné CARE (Citizens Against Ruining our Environment), said there are many Navajo residential members who are subjected daily to toxic gases from oil and gas wells. Jackson said a health assessment, conducted in partnership with the council chapter and released last year, reported that, of the community respondents who filled out symptom surveys, 90 percent said they experienced sinus problems and sore throats, 80 percent reported cough, headaches, itching, burning eyes, joint-pain fatigue and sleep disturbance, while 70 percent reported nosebleeds and wheezing. Jackson said there is the growing evidence of association between proximity to well pads and negative health outcomes among young children, including low birth weight and prematurity. “Children spend more time outdoors, increasing their exposure to emissions. Their bodies are still maturing, and they cannot metabolize or detoxify some toxins as well as adults,” she explained.

Reverend David Wilson Rogers, a 21-year resident of Carlsbad, said he’d seen and appreciated the economic value from the industry, but he had also seen its catastrophic destruction. Rogers said the community in Carlsbad has been overrun by largely unregulated, unmonitored and uncontained methane release. “There is a well-funded marketing effort covering up the vomitus explosion of toxic gas in our atmosphere, because it makes a better short-term business profit to destroy the environment than to invest the money necessary to save the planet from environmental collapse. My point is simple: The proposed rule is a good step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough.”

Yvonne Pesquera, a Taos resident and volunteer with the Sierra Club, has experienced climate change over the past decade. “Our winters are shorter. Our snowfall amounts are very small. We’re skiing on artificial snow. This means the spring runoff is considerably lower.” Pescara said water levels in the Rio Grande were so low, you could walk across it in some spots like a creek. “Now for those of you who don’t know, the Rio here in Taos is in the gorge. It’s usually so deep it drowns a couple of river rafters almost every year. The fact that we can walk across it shows you how low the water level dropped because there was no snow, no spring runoff. It’s like living in a matchbox.”

Gloria Lehmur, a lifelong resident of Farmington, said she had been speaking up about the issue of methane waste and pollution and its impact on public health, safety and our environment for many years. “I have seen the negative impacts of flaring, venting, leaks, explosions, job accidents, the excess use and destruction of land and water and, more recently, drought and wildfires north of us. The time is now for a strong methane rule for New Mexico; we can lead in the nation,” Lehmur said.

Representative Joanne Ferrary from House District 37 in Las Cruces, a House member of the Energy Environment and Natural Resources Committee and the Health and Human Services Committee vice chair, said she has been concerned about methane waste and pollution in New Mexico for a long time. “It’s costing our schools millions in revenue and ruining our air and harming our climate, now and for future generations.” She said in Doña Ana county, where there is gas utility production, it’s causing health problems for children and their families. “We owe it to New Mexico as well as the world to mitigate quickly the effects of methane waste in order to stall climate change and its lasting effects.” Ferrary said.

Environmental nonprofits referred to collectively as the “Climate Advocates” will be represented at the OCC rule hearing by Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) and will begin presentations on Jan. 5. The nonprofits include the Center for Civic Policy, the Conservation Voters of New Mexico, Earthworks, the Natural Resources Defense Council, San Juan Citizen Alliance, the Sierra Club and 350 New Mexico. Another petitioner, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), will also begin presenting its case. “The rules that OCD has proposed for adoption by the commission are really pretty strong rules, but they need strengthening and improvements in order to be nationally leading roles,” Tannis Fox, a staff attorney with WELC, told attendees at a recent Sierra Club meeting.

There are two ways to offer public comment on the proposed rules to the commission during the week the hearings are held. Participants may employ either or both. Verbal comments may be offered for two minutes or comments in writing can be submitted to the OCC at hearings@state.edu. If you have an issue logging in, contact 505-852-7374.

There is a lot of money at stake during these hearings. Oil and natural gas contributed $2.8 billion to New Mexico’s budget in fiscal year 2020. The industry contributed more than $3.1 billion in tax revenue, or 40 percent of the state’s budget, for fiscal year 2019—an increase of $910 million from 2018. According to the Environmental Defense Fund updated analysis, New Mexico’s oil and gas companies emit over 1.1 million metric tons of methane annually—five times more pollution than EPA data suggests. EDF estimates New Mexico wastes $271 million worth of natural gas annually and loses out on an additional $43 million in tax and royalty revenue every year due to methane waste.

In a news release in Dec. 2020, the American Petroleum Institute announced the Environmental Partnership, which is composed of companies in the U.S. oil and natural gas industry, was launching a new program to reduce flaring. “Despite the challenges this year, the Environmental Partnership continues to grow and advance innovative solutions for a cleaner future,” director for the Environmental Partnership Matthew Todd said. “This commitment to reduce flaring builds on the industry’s progress in reducing methane emissions and is the latest example of how companies are constantly innovating to improve environmental performance while delivering affordable, reliable energy around the world.”

Data from a recent report from the World Bank said the U.S. contributes the most to the increased global growth of gas flaring. “Our data suggests that gas flaring continues to be a persistent problem, with solutions remaining difficult or uneconomic in certain countries,” Christopher Sheldon, practice manager in the World Bank’s Energy and Extractives Global Practice, said. Some industry leaders, including Pioneer Natural Resources Co. President and CEO Scott Sheffield and Chevron North America Exploration and Production Co. President Stephen Green, have advocated for an end to the practice of flaring.

The Land of Enchantment has dirty air, and besides the health issue and lost revenue methane emissions represent, it impacts New Mexico negatively as a tourist destination, a huge industry in the state. New Mexico is increasingly becoming known as the nation’s leading methane hotspot, which can impair the quality of the outdoor recreational experience of hiking, biking, fishing, skiing, rafting and climbing. It’s not too late, though. New Mexico has the opportunity to lead by moving to stronger more responsible enforced regulations.

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