New Mexico is moving mostly in step with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed methane rule, which is aimed at sharply reducing the heat-trapping greenhouse gas in the coming decades.

The EPA said that when drafting the rule, it drew from the work of oil-producing states pushing to cut methane emissions.

New Mexico and Colorado are considered the most prominent in trying to curb air pollution from oil fields. At a recent state climate summit, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for putting into law her 2019 executive order to cut carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050.

The EPA’s proposed rule would cover existing oil wells throughout the country, going beyond the recently restored Obama-era methane rule that only regulates wells installed after 2015 — an action that environmentalists say would be a milestone.

The rule is part of the Biden administration’s climate plan aimed at tackling a broad range of methane pollution sources, including fossil fuels, agriculture and landfills.

The plan was rolled out last week after President Joe Biden arrived at the global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, where more than 100 countries agreed to a 30 percent reduction in methane emissions by 2030.

The public will have 60 days to comment on the EPA proposal after it is published in the Federal Register. The agency also will hold public hearings and workshops.

State officials say a stronger federal rule is imperative to reduce collective emissions of a gas that has 80 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide in a 20-year period. Methane is estimated to cause as much as one-third of global warming.

“A strong, enforceable national rule to address methane emissions from oil and gas operations across all states is essential,” New Mexico Deputy Environment Secretary Stephanie Stringer wrote in an email. “A national framework will ensure a comprehensive approach to mitigating climate change and air pollution.”

The EPA’s proposal would complement New Mexico’s efforts, such as its proposed ozone precursor rule, Stringer added.

The precursor rule, which is expected to take effect next year, targets a different type of pollution wafting from oil fields.

It would drastically reduce the amount of nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds that form ground-level ozone, a toxic gas that can cause respiratory problems and damage the heart and lungs with prolonged exposure.

In reducing those pollutants, the proposed measures also would cut methane tied to those substances by an estimated 851 million pounds yearly in New Mexico.

The EPA estimates its rule would eliminate 41 million tons of methane between 2023 and 2035.

In an email, the spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association wrote that the group will review the proposal and make suggestions to the EPA, just as it has done with state regulators as they’ve developed emissions rules.

“Our members support taking meaningful action to address the risks of climate change,” spokesman Robert McEntyre wrote. “The oil and natural gas industry has long led the way with innovation and technology to ensure that production today and tomorrow is cleaner, safer, and more environmentally sound than ever before.”

Conservationists applauded the proposed rule, though they also think some parts should be strengthened.

A more stringent federal rule is important for neighboring states like Texas, whose lax methane oversight can lead to the pollutant drifting into New Mexico, said John Goldstein, state policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund.

“The air pollution doesn’t stop at the state line,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein said it was momentous for the EPA to craft a rule that would cover the hundreds of thousands of wells across the U.S. And it would impose tougher regulations on fossil fuel operations on tribal lands, where state government has no jurisdiction, he said.

But the current draft version offers no significant restrictions on the routine flaring of natural gas, whereas the state has banned flaring except for emergencies, Goldstein said.

New Mexico operators also are required to capture 98 percent of their methane by 2026.

Aside from being good for the climate and public health, Goldstein said, capturing natural gas makes economic sense because it prevents operators from losing their commodity, which is needed as households face higher heating prices due to tighter gas supplies.

An EPA analysis estimates capturing methane will save the industry as much as $4.5 billion a year in lost revenue.

Another shortcoming is that the draft rule requires only a one-time inspection of wells that emit 3 tons or less of pollutants per year, which could result in some wells increasing their emissions and going unchecked, said Camilla Feibelman, executive director of the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter.

This provision is similar to what the state had agreed to for its proposed ozone precursor rule before changing to yearly inspections on low-emitting wells, Feibelman said.

“That is of concern to us,” she said.

However, the EPA will conduct a supplemental rule-making to address issues that either are not covered in this rule or raise concerns, such as routine flaring or too few inspections of marginal wells, Feibelman said.

She agreed that the more comprehensive oversight being proposed across all states will create a baseline of protections.

“This has been a really long road,” she said. “Just the fact that there are proposed methane rules out of the EPA that cover existing sources is a really big deal.”

This rule, she said, would go further than state regulations in encouraging operators to upgrade their technologies for monitoring and capturing methane.

Industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute have argued that stronger emissions rules are unnecessary because companies are improving their technology to curb pollution.

In a news release, the EPA described how the rule would give operators the flexibility to use advanced technology to find leaks more quickly and at lower costs.

There also would be a zero-emissions standard for new and existing pneumatic controlling devices, some of which account for 30 percent of the industry’s methane emissions, the EPA said.

With most of the current pneumatic controllers, pressurized natural gas opens and closes valves, releasing methane into the atmosphere.

The agency’s rule would ban the polluting devices much faster than the state’s plan to phase them out by 2030.

The EPA is correct to offer broad and flexible guidelines for technology so operators aren’t forced to buy expensive equipment that might be outdated in a few years, said Tom Singer, senior policy adviser for the Western Environmental Law Center.

State and federal agencies are creating rules that will work in concert to reduce methane emissions, Singer said, but he doubts it will be enough to quell the industry’s impacts on the climate.

To truly combat climate change, the world must shift away from fossil fuels, he said.

“It’s unlikely that the rules by themselves are going to drive emissions … below levels where oil and gas production is climate-friendly,” Singer said.

Still, Feibelman thinks the federal government’s new plan and the international agreement to cut methane emissions in the next decade are encouraging steps.

“It’s been a big week for methane,” she said.

(1) comment

Robert Fields

Making oil and gas companies clean up their act is a very good thing. According to the EPA, methane is the second largest in greenhouse gas at about 20% of emissions but carries outsized influence on the climate and is 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.

It’s way past time to hold fossil fuel companies accountable.

“Because methane is both a powerful greenhouse gas and short-lived compared to carbon dioxide, achieving significant reductions would have a rapid and significant effect on atmospheric warming potential.”

Methane is part of the low hanging fruit of reducing global warming and climate change. Lots of bang for the buck in reducing emissions.

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