New Mexico needs to make sure its blue skies are free of pollution — setting standards to protect the health of all who live here. Gorgeous views in all parts of the state are beside the point if people are breathing air that makes them sick.
In September, the state Environmental Improvement Board will begin a hearing to consider the state Environment Department’s proposed oil and gas air pollution rules, a complement to methane emission standards adopted last May.
The new rules will regulate emissions of volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen that combine to create ground-level ozone, or smog. Despite outrage from the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, state leaders must stand firm to reduce such pollution.
The hearing begins Monday, with a vote expected in February and rules anticipated to take effect in March.
Tough rules are something residents should expect from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has made fighting climate change a cornerstone of her administration.
To meet the moment, the proposed rules need to protect those living closest to energy industry activity by requiring more frequent inspections to find and fix leaks, as well as to ensure operators control pollution when completing a new oil and gas well or refurbishing an old one. The state also can require operators to reduce pollution from super-emitter sources, such as pneumatic controllers used in oil and gas production.
In the past, the industry has successfully asked for exemptions for small operators or relied on self-regulation — proclaiming tough standards would damage oil and gas production and hurt state tax revenues. That refrain has lost its ability to persuade.
At the same time, pollution from the oil and gas industry does not recognize state lines. Drilling in Texas can put people living in Southern New Mexico at risk of serious health complications. That’s why new rules under consideration by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are so important. Scheduled for release later this month, these rules must include provisions to detect leaks, repair them and address routine flaring to reduce emissions.
Five counties in New Mexico — Eddy, Lea, San Juan, Rio Arriba and Chaves — are home to 97 percent of the state’s oil and gas wells. It’s little surprise these counties are at risk of violating federal ozone standards.
Eddy, Lea and Chaves are in the Permian Basin, which stretches across parts of New Mexico and Texas and potentially is one of the greatest methane gas emitters in the nation. We also know the methane cloud over the San Juan Basin is vast enough to be seen from space. That’s why national standards are necessary. New Mexico can’t do it alone.
Science has shown methane — a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide — is one of the leading contributors to climate change. In the U.S., the largest industrial source of methane pollution is oil and gas production, with the industry releasing 16 million metric tons a year. That figure is increasing. New Mexico is home to some of the worst methane pollution in the country, with oil and gas producers releasing 1.1 million metric tons of methane because of venting, flaring and leaks.
The U.S. must stick to the goal of reducing methane pollution by 65 percent below 2012 levels over the next four years, using provisions of the Clean Air Act already in place. This will help the the nation fulfill its commitments under the Paris climate accord and ensure global temperatures do not increase at a rate that imperils the future.
To reach this goal, New Mexico and the federal government must both act to reduce oil and gas pollution. National rules, combined with tough but fair state rules, will make certain our skies are as clean as they look while protecting the planet we call home.