It’s Friday morning at the State Land Office, and in comes a trickle of people.
A woman in a pink coat and jeans walks through the front door. A few minutes later, she’s followed by men in navy sport coats and tan slacks; a man in a dark brown vest, sunglasses and cowboy hat; a handful of others in jeans or khakis.
Finally, a familiar face: There’s Tom Singer, an environmental policy expert, striding in from the cold. He’s six minutes late.
It’s difficult to tell if others are bureaucrats coming to work or participants in private meetings on a key environmental issue.
The meetings of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Methane Advisory Panel, tasked with creating technical recommendations on how to cut methane emissions in the state, are not public. Even their time and place are kept private.
The panel’s website lists six “technical presentations,” but members have gathered at least 11 times. There have been no published meeting minutes, agendas or news releases on what the panel has discussed from the Governor’s Office or the New Mexico Environment Department, despite the political importance of these closed-door sessions.
Members of the panel and a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office say that in addition to the contents of the meeting being largely technical, opening them to the public would thwart frank discussion.
“The methane advisory panel members — both industry and environmental organizations — concurred with the process to ensure a candid, productive and timely process,” Nora Sackett, spokeswoman for the governor, said in an email.
Once discussions conclude “on technical topics like compressor engines, storage tanks, pneumatic valves, etc., a report will be shared publicly for review and comment,” Sackett said. “We invite the public to participate in the review of the MAP’s work product at that time.”
The panel is dominated nearly 2 to 1 by the oil and gas industry. Most of the other members are environmental lawyers.
Sackett stressed the advisory panel “is not consulting or drafting any methane rules,” which will instead come from the New Mexico Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department after the group issues its report.
Public meetings on the advisory panel’s final report will be held in Farmington and Carlsbad before the end of the year. But Sackett said that “because this panel is not a decision-making body and is organized in an advisory capacity it is not subject to the [state] Open Meetings Act.”
The New Mexican obtained an agenda for an October meeting of the panel that centered on an industry practice known as “venting” and “flaring” — the releasing or burning of excess methane into the atmosphere. It may have been one of the most interesting discussions the group took up: Venting and flaring are a major source of methane, the greenhouse gas that is roughly 30 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping the sun’s heat in the atmosphere.
Nationally — and for some in New Mexico — the issue is at the center of an ongoing political debate about how to reel in greenhouse gas emissions at a time of increased alarm over rising global temperatures.
Panel members representing the oil and gas industry did not return calls to The New Mexican. A spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, Robert McEntyre, said the industry’s stance on methane emissions is clearly laid out on its website and declined to go into more details about the meetings.
He did, however, criticize environmentalists in general for proposing an “A to Z , zero-to-1,000-type strategy that includes a lot of expensive and costly steps that are essentially feel good” ideas “that don’t really serve to reduce emissions.”
Singer, a senior policy advisor at Western Environmental Law Center and a member of the panel, also said he could not talk about what has taken place at the meetings.
But he said oil and gas companies are not generally willing to discuss why venting and flaring occurs in some areas but not others, or talk about why oil or gas wells are drilled with no connecting pipes to funnel excess methane that could be used as fuel.
“The industry is not nearly as forthcoming as I think they could be, and I don’t understand why,” Singer said. “I’m very disappointed in their lack of forthcomingness … of the things that individual companies are doing to solve these problems.”
Singer said if the meetings were public, and “if industry people were [as a result] even more closed-mouthed then they already are, then it wouldn’t even be worth having at all.”
Melanie Majors, director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, criticized the closed-door practice.
“Bureaucracies are naturally secretive, and the public must constantly defend its right to know,” Majors said in an email. “Secrecy is the hallmark of totalitarian nations, not democracies. Government transparency and accountability are essential for a working democracy. How can citizens make informed decisions if they are kept out of the process?”
Elizabeth Paranhos, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund who’s also a panel member, said MAP will eventually offer some recommendations on how New Mexico can address different emission sources that will be included in a final report.
She said the Environmental Defense Fund, in general, sees reducing venting and flaring in the Permian Basin as “a high priority” and could be achieved through gas capture plans, more pipelines to carry excess methane, and “high-efficiency” flaring that reduces methane emissions by 98 percent.
Lujan Grisham’s administration also could put limits in place on the amount of flaring, similar to a previous President Barack Obama administration-era cap that was eliminated under President Donald Trump.
Sierra Club lawyer David Baake, another MAP member, said he plans to discuss policies such as emissions fees and plant-wide caps during the upcoming public comment period. Baake said the Sierra Club supports policies that would put the nation “on track to have this industry be zero emissions by the middle of the century.”