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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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Governor Lujan Grisham’s administrative rule writing took a giant leap toward cleaning our enchanted skies on March 25 with The New Mexico Oil Conservation Commission’s (OCC) unanimous vote to adopt a proposed new rule by the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) that limits venting and flaring of methane by the oil and gas industry. The ruling holds the oil and gas industry accountable for emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gases and reduces methane waste pollution from the oil and gas industry on public lands.

“I think this is a huge day for New Mexico,” said Adrienne Sandoval, OCC chair and director of the state’s Oil Conservation Division. In New Mexico the oil and gas industry is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 53 percent of emissions according to the state’s latest analysis

A coalition of the 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, was represented at the hearing by the Western Environmental Law Center. They successfully achieved two important goals with the passing of the rules by the OCC: banning venting and flaring of gas, except in limited circumstances, and requiring all oil and gas companies capture 98 percent of methane emissions by 2026. 

Governor Lujan Grisham tasked state agencies with reducing methane emissions in the oil and gas industry in a 2019 executive order on climate change. Since early 2019 the New Mexico Environmental Department and the EMNRD have been working cooperatively to develop strategies to reduce waste and air pollution from New Mexico’s oil and gas industry.

The ruling showed support for regulating venting and flaring. Michael Jensen, communications director for Conservation Voters New Mexico, said, “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.”

Both NMED and EMNRD departments held joint multiple meetings with a diverse group of stakeholders, convened the Methane Advisory Panel to create a wide-ranging technology support document and met frequently to discuss stakeholder input and rule development. This collective process has enabled the two departments to craft rules that don’t leave regulatory gaps or conflict and duplicate each other while still achieving the waste and pollution reductions our blue skies and people of New Mexico desperately need.

A second proposed rule by the New Mexico Environment Department targets emissions and leaks of methane, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides from the oil and gas industry that are responsible for 70 percent of methane emissions statewide. The NMED proposed rule’s draft has loopholes which exempt most leak detection, and this does not achieve Governor Lujan Grisham’s goal of nation-leading methane protections. Low-producing wells, which comprise the bulk of wells in New Mexico, would be exempt in the draft of the proposed rule. Conservation and environmental groups and their representatives want to close these loopholes in the final ruling.

“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.” Methane leaks cost the state’s schools upwards of $43 million in royalty and tax revenue annually.  

NMED is expected to propose its rule to the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board in May and request a hearing before the board in September. “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, N.M. 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.”

In other oil and gas regulation news, the Biden Administration’s pause and comprehensive review of the federal oil and gas leasing program answered a “911 call” the Greater Chaco Coalition has been making for reform since 2014. “We thank Interior Secretary Haaland for her leadership in directing the Interior Department to adequately address environmental justice and equity issues and hold hope for a new era of respect for sovereign Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples,” the coalition said in a statement. 

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Robert McEntyre said, “We welcome the opportunity to collaborate and partner with the Interior Department to ensure New Mexico is able to continue development of oil and gas in a safe, responsible manner while prioritizing our shared goals of reducing emissions and limiting the effects of climate change.”

A methane cloud the size of Delaware hovers over the Greater Chaco region in northwest New Mexico where over 90 percent of the land has already been leased to oil and gas. Oil and gas companies release more than 1.1 million tons of methane each year in New Mexico—the same impact as about 25 coal-fired power plants. More than half of all Native Americans in 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.

The Chaco Coalition is asking for the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs to study alternative economic development opportunities to provide relief and restore balance to the land and lives of communities impacted.

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