Tuesday, October 3, 2023

'Fire in the Hole!'; Pipeline leaks take on new urgency in New Mexico


Potential for Greater Emission Reductions from Oil and Gas Industry

There is a vast web of natural gas pipelines in New Mexico that are old, almost ancient. And with age comes leaks, spills and the potential for explosive consequences with no one shouting, “Fire in the hole!” New Mexico is set to become the voice that shouts that warning out in a loud and clear voice. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally announced in August that it had rescinded methane emissions regulations over the oil and gas industry. The Lujan Grisham administration condemned those federal rollbacks of methane regulations and is stepping up its oversight in a juxtaposed position to the current Trump administration’s practice of favoring industry and ignoring environmental concerns. New Mexico has the potential to be a leader in securing greater emission reductions from the oil and gas sector, as states are allowed to issue their own regulations as long as they are at least as stringent as EPA regulations.

“It is utterly disheartening and sadly unsurprising to hear, once again, that critical environmental regulations are being rolled back by the Trump administration, leaving states to fend for themselves,” said Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in an August press release.

“COVID-19 continues to pose dire public health risks, and we cannot afford to see additional public health crises brought on by declining air quality and rising temperatures. New Mexico is well on the way to putting in place our own robust and innovative regulations to curb methane emissions in the oil and gas industry, which will yield improved air quality and fewer climate change-inducing emissions. We will continue to do everything in our power to fight climate change and environmental degradation despite the Trump administration’s backward approach.”

Responding to an executive order issued in 2019 by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham calling for statewide efforts to mitigate climate change, New Mexico State’s Environment Department (NMED) and its Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) began the process of establishing stricter regulations on gas emissions. The draft of the proposed rule is expected to be finalized by the end of 2020.

Governor Lujan Grisham’s administration is on a mission to potentially finalize the proposed state regulations that will hold pipeline operators accountable for potential pollution. “Without a national approach to controlling oil and gas emissions, ozone levels will rise and climate change will advance,” said Environment Department Cabinet Secretary James Kenney. “These rollbacks make it even more essential that our regulations secure greater emission reductions from the oil and gas sector.” According to Elizabeth Kuehn, NMED Air Quality bureau chief, seven New Mexico counties were known to exceed federal ozone limits, with five of them in New Mexico’s oil-producing regions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations’ body for assessing the science related to climate change and was created to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change. The group’s latest assessment report calculated that methane, a component of natural gas, is 34 times stronger as a heat-trapping gas than CO2 over a 100-year time scale. This translates into the heat-trapping strength or global-warming potential of methane is nearly 40 percent greater than the previously estimated 25 percent.

As New Mexico prepares to ramp up required reporting of methane leaks from the oil industry, state economic development officials have awarded a $750,000 Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) grant to LaSen Inc. Available data on leaks is not consistent, and LaSen has developed a process of detecting pipeline leaks and hazards using aerial observation from helicopters and drones utilizing high-resolution video, sophisticated LIDAR mapping and sensing technology. It can detect leaks from 300 to 500 feet above the ground. The mid-infrared laser used by LaSen detects hydrocarbons such as methane, propane and butane, as well as volatilized liquid petroleum products.

Officials said LaSen plans to invest more than $8 million into a new 37,000 square-foot headquarters and operations center in Las Cruces, hire nearly 80 employees and add more drones and helicopters to its fleet. The expansion is expected to have a statewide economic impact of $463 million over 10 years. In addition to the initial grant, the City of Las Cruces made an additional $400,000 offer to the project from its LEDA fund. LaSen expects to move into the new facility in the summer of 2021. "I'm thrilled about the expansion of this cutting-edge company in Las Cruces. It will bring even more highly skilled, high-tech jobs to New Mexico," Governor Lujan Grisham said.

Regulations are sorely needed to improve air quality throughout New Mexico. Older pipelines are expected to leak after 40 years, and many of these crisscross the state. Different ages of pipelines have different safety concerns; and if sufficient resources and oversight aren't provided, leaks can go on for months or years. New Mexico’s smaller facilities and low-producing wells, collectively, are also a significant source of methane waste and pollution. “New Mexico is unwavering in its commitment to developing nation-leading rules to regulate methane waste and tackle climate change head on,” said Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department Cabinet Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst. “States are stepping up where the federal government is backing down, and we will continue to do so.”


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