Dozens of state lawmakers and local government officials from across New Mexico sent a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior on Friday, expressing support for the Obama administration’s proposed new methane rules, which would have a wide impact in a state with the highest levels of methane emissions.
The rules, proposed by the Bureau of Land Management, would require frequent inspections of oil and gas operations and installation of emissions-capturing devices for wells on federal and tribal lands — including nearly 40,000 in New Mexico.
About 40 state senators and representatives, county commissioners, city councilors and both Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales and Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima signed the letter, which stated that there is a crucial need for more regulation of the oil and gas industry.
A similar rule proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2015 requires emissions-capturing technology for all new oil and gas operators. But those in support of the BLM rules say they’re an important complement to the EPA regulations because they also would regulate existing wells.
Many oil and gas producers object to the rules, however, saying they are already self-regulating and that new technologies are cost-prohibitive for a struggling industry.
A state House bill proposed by Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington, has even proposed lowering taxes on small oil and gas producers to keep help keep them in business.
The New Mexico Business Coalition also objects to the BLM rules. The group released a statement Friday proclaiming that the Sierra Club, which launched a letter-writing campaign supporting the tougher regulations, has started a “War on Jobs.”
Larry Sonntag, a spokesman for the business coalition, said the environmental group’s actions were “shocking” in light of the job crisis in New Mexico and the economic strain in Farmington, the state’s largest oil- and gas-producing region.
Sonntag said the BLM rule is redundant and “will cost oil and gas companies millions” of dollars and result in additional job losses for the state.
Those in favor of the rules, however, say the costs of the new technology are negligible and that the investment is necessary.
Methane emissions can be cut by 40 percent at a cost of less than a penny per thousand cubic feet of natural gas, according to a study by the consulting firm ICF International that was cited in the letter by New Mexico lawmakers and local government officials.
“Methane pollution represents a significant economic loss,” the letter says, citing lost revenues of over $100 million. It says the proposed rule allows “governments to recoup the maximum revenues possible to offset negative impacts to local communities.”
While New Mexico is the nation’s eighth-highest oil and gas producer, it is home to the highest methane emissions, a key component in natural gas. Practices like flaring, venting and leaks from oil production can cause methane, which is transparent and odorless, to escape and collect in the environment.
“Why are we burning this [gas]? Why are we letting this go?” asked Ken Salazar, a rancher and hunter in Northern New Mexico, during a news conference Friday in support of the BLM regulations. He said the regulations were a form of conservation and sustainability akin to using the whole animal after a kill.
When questioned on the financial impact to oil producers, Salazar said the rules could help to create jobs and re-employ people to install and inspect capture devices.
Former Española Mayor and current Santa Fe City Councilor Joe Maestas said the financial impact would be lessened by phasing in regulations.
“Greater transparency is needed in terms of how oil and gas companies report production,” said Jill Lancelot, co-founder of Taxpayers for a Common Cause. “The BLM proposed rule is an important step in the right direction.”
Don Schreiber, a rancher in Rio Arriba County, said since the discussion of the proposed rule began, Conoco Phillips, which is a large producer in Rio Arriba, has implemented a computer system to balance well pressure and reduce flaring. He said those actions “would never have happened had BLM not expressed the intentions [for the rule].”
In Schreiber’s community, oil wells outnumber people, he said.
When one of the 120 wells near his home vents gas into the air, it sounds like a jet engine taking flight, he said. When a well is flared, enormous flames stretch into the sky and illuminate his ranch house. And when a leak occurs, he said, methane mixes with other chemicals to create a toxic, inescapable smell.
“It can make you wish you were holding your breath,” Schreiber said, “make you want to run.”
“Our voices are usually drowned out by the voices of industry,” he added. “This rule means everything to us.”
Rebecca Moss can be reached at email@example.com or 505-986-3011.