In the spring, the New Mexico Environment Department released a draft rule to reduce ozone-forming pollutants and methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, to protect our public health, climate and airshed.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Environment Secretary Jim Kenney deserve recognition for putting forth a strong and much improved proposal and for listening to the people of New Mexico who asked for these improvements to be made. Moving ahead, I look forward to working with them on a few additional key areas that will ensure this is the nationally leading rule it can be and that it meets the governor’s commitments.

In March, the New Mexico Oil Conservation Commission finalized a strong rule to cut methane waste by prohibiting routine venting and flaring at new and existing wells across the state. This, coupled with the new and improved proposal from the Environment Department, are a great start. However, a few key additional improvements will ensure that front-line communities in particular are protected from this harmful oil and gas pollution.

This includes ensuring well sites close to dwellings and schools are inspected more frequently, adequately addressing emissions created during well completions and addressing pollution from existing gas-powered pneumatic controllers.These additions will ensure clean and healthy air for all New Mexicans and that we meet state climate objectives.

On behalf of Acoma Pueblo, I urge the New Mexico Environment Department to make key adjustments to its draft proposal, including requiring more frequent inspections to identify and fix leaks at oil and gas facilities and well infrastructure in close proximity to front-line communities; implementing stronger requirements for operators to control pollution during completion or when redeveloping existing wells; and strengthening requirements to reduce pollution from pneumatic controllers, which are the second-largest source of methane emissions in New Mexico. Furthermore, I urge the New Mexico Legislature to adequately fund state agencies, including the Environment Department and the Oil Conservation Division, to hire and train enforcement and compliance personnel.

New Mexico is home to two major energy-producing regions, one of which has some of the highest concentrations of methane in the nation, with state oil and gas operators releasing hundreds of thousands of health-threatening volatile organic compounds and 1.1 million metric tons of methane annually through leaking, venting and flaring. That includes a 2,500-square-mile methane cloud that hovers over the San Juan Basin. A powerful greenhouse gas that is about 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide, methane is responsible for approximately 25 percent of the climate change impacts that we’re experiencing today.

This pollution is particularly problematic for public health. In the American Lung Association’s 2021 State of the Air Report, New Mexico’s top oil- and gas-producing counties, including Lea, Eddy and San Juan, each received an F grade for ozone pollution. We’re also increasingly seeing the impacts of a warming climate, such as severe drought, which is only expected to get worse if we don’t act now.

As Pueblo people, the impact of continued oil and gas pollution not only threatens our health but our way of life. Our culture and identity are directly tied to the ancestral landscapes, like the San Juan Basin, where our people continue to rely on cultural resources therein. Places like Chaco Canyon and the vast array of cultural resources that extend and connect us as Pueblo people to the sacred landscape emanating from Chaco has been overwhelmed by oil and gas production. The result is not only an overly industrialized landscape but, due to oil and gas pollution, a direct threat to Acoma people’s physical and mental health.

The solution to our pressing pollution and climate issues is bold and immediate action at the state as well as federal level. For oil and gas legacy states like New Mexico, change can be difficult. But the oil and gas industry must be held accountable for its pollution, and we have the technology to control and mitigate methane waste, which 89 percent of New Mexico voters support.

It is critically important that the New Mexico Environment Department’s final rule be strengthened to protect historically disadvantaged communities, our children and elders, and all New Mexicans from pollution, as well as to help set New Mexico on the path to a healthier, more sustainable future.

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo is a contributor to Western Leaders Voices, a program of Western Leaders Network that helps amplify the voices of local and tribal elected leaders on conservation issues in the West.

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