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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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To the delight of conservation groups and environmentalists around the state, loophole exemptions for stripper and marginal oil wells have been removed from the New Mexico Environment Department’s proposed new rules regulating the oil and gas industry in the state. NMED has filed a petition with the Environmental Improvement Board to review the draft rule, the Ozone Precursor Pollutant rule, and a public hearing is expected to be scheduled this fall.

“The Environment Department responded to our call and the call from many community and environmental groups around the state to tighten gaping loopholes in its original draft rule from last summer. We commend Sec. Kenney and Gov. Lujan Grisham for proposing leak detection and repair rules and controls on other important sources that will be much more protective of clean air,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC). “That said, the devil is in the details. We need to dive into the proposed rules to analyze just how fully they protect the climate and New Mexicans’ health, especially that of our most vulnerable communities.” WELC will represent community groups in a hearing before the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board in the fall.

New Mexico has some of the worst methane pollution and waste in the nation. Oil and gas air pollution pose a serious threat to the health of all New Mexicans but disproportionately impacts children, seniors, Indigenous communities and those living in rural areas. More than half of all Native Americans in New Mexico’s San Juan County—about 24,600 people—live within a half-mile of a well site.

The oil and gas industry is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 53 percent of those emissions, according to the state’s latest analysis. Additional analysis shows that oil and gas companies release more than 1.1 million tons of methane each year in New Mexico, which has the same climate impacts as about 25 coal-fired power plants. It is estimated that New Mexico loses $43 million in royalty and tax revenue annually from the wasted methane gas.

In March the Oil Conservation Commission adopted methane waste rules proposed by the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. EMNRD has jurisdiction over the waste of methane because it is natural gas, an energy source. This includes methane waste through venting and flaring of natural gas. NMED has jurisdiction over ozone precursors emitted by oil and gas facilities, although it was also given new authority through legislation just passed this year to regulate methane directly.

The proposed NMED Ozone Precursor Pollutant rule and the approved EMNRD rules were written with the intent of working in conjunction with one another to limit industry venting and flaring of methane gas. Under the proposed NMED rule, companies would be required to detect and repair leaks as well as control other pollution sources from oil and gas operations in the state. If the Environmental Improvement Board approves the NMED pollutant rule this fall, it’s anticipated that both rules would go into effect in 2022.

The new rules are designed to lift New Mexico’s position from the bottom to the top for clean air regulations on the oil and gas industry in the U.S. When developing the NMED and EMNRD rules, state agencies held several public meetings where environmental groups and the oil and gas industry were afforded the opportunity to give input to both rules as they were being drafted.

“Advocates and frontline communities told NMED loudly and clearly that the loopholes in the earlier proposal would hurt health and climate,” said Nathalie Eddy, New Mexico field advocate and field manager at Earthworks. “We appreciate that NMED recognizes that the new draft rule must promise a much greater level of protection. Swift and bold action on a strong final rule is necessary to rein in dangerous oil and gas pollution that puts community health and our climate at risk. For too long oil and gas operators have been allowed to pollute day and day out. N.M. frontline communities see, smell and feel the impacts.”

NMED estimates that the proposed state rules will annually reduce 213 million pounds of volatile organic compounds and 46 million pounds of nitrogen oxides with the co-benefit of reducing 851 million pounds of methane. Leaks from oil and gas operations affect public health, particularly people living and working nearby, and are responsible for 70 percent of state emissions of methane.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham praised the rule saying the EMNRD and NMED rules will protect the environment and “our families’ health” for generations to come. “Today, New Mexicans can breathe easier knowing that present and future generations will have cleaner air,” Lujan Grisham said in a press release. “This rule will not only hold industry accountable, but will also spur innovation and greener practices in the oil and gas fields. The effect will be equivalent to taking eight million cars off the road every year.”

Mike Eisenfeld of San Juan Citizens Alliance said the rulemaking is very important to communities overwhelmed with methane emissions in the northwestern part of the state. “It is also imperative that ozone precursor emissions are reduced in all New Mexico counties with high ozone levels correlated to oil and gas activities—including San Juan, Sandoval and Rio Arriba counties—which are close to nonattainment. We are thankful that NMED is taking action.” 

A county can lose access to federal funding for projects like road improvements if they do not meet attainment of the federal ozone standards. There are eight counties in the state that could be in jeopardy of non-attainment. They include Sandoval, Eddy, Chaves, Rio Arriba, Doña Ana, Valencia, Lea and San Juan. 

“We are still reviewing the [NMED] rule, but it seems to make really good strides toward protecting our climate and protecting frontline community health,” said Camilla Feibelman of the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter. “We will work with regulators as the rulemaking process moves forward to make sure kids and families who live close to emitters are protected.

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