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.

When it comes to New Mexico and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), prosecuting fossil fuel operators for pollution issues, welcome to the Land of Mañana, or no pasa nada – nothing happens.

A third round of helicopter flyovers across the Permian Basin last month should provide enough information on which oil fields are polluting the air that New Mexicans breathe. Unfortunately, to date, it appears the bark is worse than the bite.

Why Worry About the Emissions?

As the oil rigs roared back to life after their Covid downturn, the air above the Permian Basin was buzzing with helicopter flyovers last month. They’re hunting for methane “super emitters” of hydrocarbon gas containing methane and chemicals escaping from pipeline compressors, tank batteries, flare stacks and other O&G production infrastructures.

“The Permian Basin has released dangerous quantities of methane and volatile organic compounds for years, contributing to climate change and poor air quality,” EPA Region 6 Administrator Earthea Nance said about the flyovers.

Methane clouds the size of the state of Delaware float over the San Juan Basin. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and cancer-causing benzene often accompany methane. The methane released is contributing to more heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and floods. Over a 20-year period, methane emitted from O&G production traps 83 times more heat in the atmosphere than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.

“The flyovers are vital to identifying which facilities are responsible for the bulk of these emissions and therefore where reductions are most urgently needed,” Nance said.

According to the EPA, VOCs contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, dizziness, nausea, migraines, as well as damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. These are restricted under current federal regulations.

Seven of New Mexico counties are on an air pollution watchlist. They are within 95% of the maximum ozone level allowed by the EPA. Doña Ana, Eddy, Lea, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, San Juan and Valencia flyovers show a significant amount of pollution.

NMED Trying to Play Catch Up

The New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED), headed by James C. Kenney, had been operating on a tight budget for years under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. Prior to his appointment, Kenney spent over 21 years at the EPA where he worked as senior policy advisor for oil and gas and helped design strategies to support environmentally responsible development of oil and natural gas resources. Kenny fought hard to get legislatures to increase the NMED budget and change the underfunding in his department. He lost, and the department’s understaffing continues.

Four of the seven field inspector positions the state employs to monitor 57,401 active oil and gas wells and 64,858 inactive wells have not been filled. Orphaned wells account for 1,700 of the inactive wells. These emit a steady stream of methane.The state has just one lawyer to handle cases against oil and gas companies violating state laws.

New Mexico has implemented tougher oil and gas emission regulations since flyovers began; however, without the additional staffing at NMED, they’re difficult to enforce. Inviting the EPA into the state to help support monitoring of its thousands of oil production facilities and enforcement efforts seemed like a good idea.

In an interview with Capital and Main, Kenney explained “In the Martinez administration, EPA wasn’t allowed in New Mexico. In the Lujan Grisham administration, the first thing we did is invite EPA in.”

NMED and the EPA collaborated to set up helicopter flyovers. The 2019 flights found 111 emission leakages at facilities run by 24 different oil and gas companies in the Permian Basin. A year and a half later, the 2020 flights over the Permian Basin are still being assessed. A helicopter flyover of New Mexico’s San Juan Basin in 2020 found 244 facilities emitting gas. There were no flyovers in 2021.

An Associated Press (AP) investigation this year showed 533 oil and gas facilities in the Permian Basin region are emitting excessive amounts of methane.

Just Two Fines Issued to O&G Operators

“Unless there is significant deterrence, there’s no change in behavior,” Kenney said in the interview. “And what you want to see from an enforcement program is a change in behavior.”

EPA is in a position to initiate enforcement actions against the companies identified in the flyover as violating federal emission law. The agency can levy administrative enforcement actions, make referrals to the Justice Department, impose a penalty of up to $25,000 a day, up to a total of $200,000, for each infraction, with penalties doubled for subsequent convictions.

They can also conduct future monitoring for verification that corrective action was taken. So far not much has happened with the data from flyovers. Consent agreements were issued by the EPA in March 2022 to 11 O&G companies including Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Occidental for violations of the Clean Air Act based on the 2019 flight data.

Only one company was fined for environmental violations by the EPA even though all of the companies were cited for “directly releasing emissions into the atmosphere.” The EPA fined another company for a paperwork violation.

A $162,385 fine was levied on Chisholm Energy who were operating three illegal wells drilled without proper state permits. BTA Oil Producers received a $75,500 fine for operating two unregistered, leaking wells. That is the extent of the fines levied. 

The additional 21 operators of leaking wells weren’t fined. Based on estimates from the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division, since they started operations in 2018, BTA wells produced oil and gas worth roughly $30 million–Chisholm wells, $17 million.

O&G has ridden roughshod over New Mexico for nearly 100 years. The question on the table is how far into the future will the blue skies of the Land of Enchantment remain blue and breathable? New Mexicans can now enter their own address into a Data Map app to see if they live in an Oil and Gas Threat Zone.