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.

Some of the country’s worst methane polluters are operating in New Mexico, with oil and gas operators here releasing 1.1 million metric tons of methane through venting, flaring and leaks into the blue skies of the Land of Enchantment. A report published in August by United Nations-backed scientists states that “strong, rapid and sustained reductions” in these methane emissions are key to meeting climate goals. In the U.S., regulation hasn’t kept up. Energy producers and pipeline operators are, in many cases, free to spew methane into the air without running afoul of any law.

Those living closest to oil and gas operations are at the greatest health risk. More than 130,000 New Mexicans live within a half mile of oil and gas development. In the Permian Basin, the lack of state rules in Texas leaves communities in N.M. at risk from the pollution that emits methane gas. It will take both state and federal action to effectively reduce methane waste and pollution in the U.S. Environmental and public health advocates and coalitions across the state are working to encourage President Biden and Governor Lujan Grisham to enact strong, comprehensive state and federal rules to curb methane waste and pollution from the oil and gas industry.

New Mexico’s Environmental Improvement Board has a hearing on September 20 to consider the New Mexico Environment Department’s proposed oil and gas air pollution rules. Five New Mexico counties—Eddy, Lea, San Juan, Rio Arriba and Chavez—are home to 97 percent of the state’s oil and gas wells, and all are at risk of violating federal ozone standards of 70 parts per billion. The American Lung Association gave the state’s top oil and gas producing counties—Lea, Eddy and San Juan—an F grade for ozone in its 2021 State of the Air Report.

Environmental and health advocates are calling on NMED to protect those living closest to oil development by requiring more frequent inspections to find and fix leaks and ensure there are strong requirements in place for operators to control pollution during the completion of an oil or gas well or when they redevelop an existing well. They advocate stronger requirements to cut pollution from pneumatic controllers that are used in oil and gas production, as these devices are the second-largest source of oil and gas methane emissions in New Mexico. They further advocate NMED requiring companies to inspect pneumatics for leaks and accelerate the timeline to retrofit equipment with zero-bleed or zero-emission pneumatic controllers. They also want the rules to address pollution from abandoned wells.

Methane levels are surging to a record high, and experts warn that methane pollution from the oil and gas industry is on track to rise 30 percent in the next five years. Last year a $7 billion contract to send Permian Basin liquefied natural gas to France collapsed over concerns about the greenhouse gas footprint. Lenders and investors are pushing for action. Oil companies are launching their own drones, airplanes and satellites in voluntary efforts to find the spills and stop them. It’s unclear how far private and voluntary actions by oil and gas will go. The sheer size of the Permian—where spills from open hatches, equipment malfunctions and the like can continue for days before anyone notices—makes it difficult to identify individual leaks. Seen from space, spills are so large and numerous they merge into one indistinguishable mass.

At the national level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also set to announce new rules this month that comprehensively limit methane pollution from new and existing wells across the country. These rules would apply to wells on both public and private lands and would set a floor for states that are regulating, or intend to regulate, methane. President Biden’s executive order calls on all federal agencies to do everything in their power to reduce oil and gas methane pollution, including leveraging the full powers of the Environmental Protection Agency’s long-standing authority under sections 111(b) and 111(d) of the Clean Air Act to establish and implement protective methane standards that apply across the sector to all sources of this harmful pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency is on deadline to issue a new and improved set of methane rules. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Environmental and health groups want key provisions strengthened and frequent leak detection and repair requirements done for all facilities. They also want to address routine flaring using existing authority under the Clean Air Act to support the administration in reducing methane pollution by 65 percent below 2012 levels in the next four years. Curbing pollution from the oil and gas industry is necessary if the Biden administration is to make progress toward addressing the climate crisis and keep warming at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius, as outlined in the Paris Agreement. 

Right now one in three people in the U.S. lives in a county with oil and gas production, and they are at risk of exposure to these dangerous pollutants. The oil and gas industry has historically been polluting in disadvantaged communities that can be disproportionately impacted by harmful oil and gas pollution. This pollution threatens their health at a time when everyone, especially those with preexisting health conditions, like heart disease and asthma, are even more susceptible to serious respiratory illness including COVID-19.

Methane emission rules are a key part of doing our share to reduce our climate impact. The world’s nations will meet in Glasgow from November 1 through 14 for the first climate conference since President Biden took office. Governor Lujan Grisham joined the Paris Climate agreement goals with the signing of her 2019 Climate Executive Order, and President Biden has returned our nation to the agreement. At this moment the wells are still pumping, the methane is still leaking, and the water they use in fracking is still polluting what precious groundwater exists in New Mexico.