Why New Mexico needs its own state methane rule now more than ever

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You may have seen the news last night or this morning that a judge has reinstated Obama-era methane rules nationwide effective immediately. While this is a great win, it’s temporary given the decision will likely be appealed and the oil and gas industry’s challenge to the original 2016 rule in the District Court of Wyoming will be revived. 

At some point, we would love to see a strong, comprehensive federal methane regulation because air and climate pollution doesn’t stop at the state line, but for New Mexicans, there’s no time to waste. 

Under guidance from Governor Lujan Grisham’s 2019 Executive Order, state agencies have been hard at work to craft a rule that would apply to oil and gas companies in New Mexico that vent, flare, or otherwise leak methane. Methane emissions aren’t just about the greater impact of climate change (methane is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the near-term at trapping heat), but also affect the air we breathe. Oil and gas producing counties are dangerously close to exceeding federal clean air protections for smog, and those living closest to development are more at risk of exposure to hazardous air pollutants. 

One study found that this pollution was literally a matter of life and death to marginalized communities that live near active well zones. In a recent report from Energywire, there is a documented negative effect of rates of preterm birth among women in areas with concentrations of methane like the Permian or San Juan basins. 

“The authors said their findings ‘suggest the effects of flaring on the length of gestation are independent’ of other potential health risks tied to living near oil and gas wells. They also said that to their knowledge, theirs is the first study to ‘document greater health impacts’ associated with oil and gas development to women of color, noting the study indicates Hispanic women were ‘vulnerable to the effects of flaring on preterm birth, whereas non-Hispanic white women were not.’

If you want to know more about why this all matters, be sure to check out our previous work here

A proposed rule is likely soon to be announced, as public comment wrapped earlier in the spring and those state agencies have been now crafting the actual policy language. Of course, course groups like New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA) have their own “proposals” about what they’re already doing, supposedly, to curb emissions. They released such a proposal early last month and have spent A LOT of time trying to defend it on their social platforms and cleverly placed media spots through their lackeys like Power the Future. 

Here’s five things you should know about NMOGA’s flaring proposal:

  1. They don’t actually recommend anything that would reduce flaring. That’s right, nada, zilch to limit the millions of dollars’ worth of NM natural gas resources that the oil and gas industry is simply burning off every year. Their flaring report is really more like “a why you should let us keep flaring” report. They spend more than half of the report creating excuses for how flaring is an inescapable part of the oil and gas production process (despite the fact that leading states have been making efforts to curtail this wasteful practice) and one measly page on a handful of suggestions for how regulators could step in. And these suggestions would have zero real, measurable impacts on flaring.
  1. NMOGA’s top recommendation for how to limit a practice that wastes tens of millions of dollars in New Mexico resources every year (drumroll please): better reporting on how much they are wasting! Don’t get me wrong, this information is valuable, but reporting alone will not lead to less flaring. We need our regulatory agencies to put strong requirements with real teeth in place to end wasteful flaring. Things like enacting and enforcing requirements to end routine flaring altogether, not just asking the oil and gas industry to do a better job of telling us about how much of our gas is being flared.
  1. NMOGA’s second recommendation is to clarify that the gas capture planning requirements put in place by the Martinez administration should be required. Similar to reporting, these plans are good and filing them should be required of all operators, but that alone will not cut flaring. These plans force oil and gas operators and pipeline companies to talk to each other and they should foster the factoring in of infrastructure availability decisions into drilling plans. But in order to make a meaningful dent in NM’s flaring problem, the state needs to go a step further and make the timelines in these documents enforceable as well. Otherwise, they are just a plan that goes on a shelf somewhere (kind of like NMOGA’s flaring report). 
  1. Many don’t know this, but the state of New Mexico currently has pretty strong language on the books that would seem to prohibit flaring in most circumstances. The problem is that for decades the state has established a practice of handing out exemptions to this requirement like penny candy. This has resulted in a situation that current Oil Conservation Division Director Adrienne Sandoval correctly characterizes as “the exemptions swallowing the rule.” In this regard, NMOGA’s third recommendation (reducing the time period for those exemptions from 60 to 30 days) is completely meaningless. The state should instead enact a firm, enforceable ban on all routine flaring and end this broken exemption process altogether. 
  1. And that’s it. Three regulatory recommendations that collectively will have zero real impact on reducing the tons and tons (and millions and millions of dollars’ worth) of New Mexico’s natural gas that the oil and gas industry is flaring every year. What’s more, NMOGA recommends nothing to address methane pollution from flares. The latest science shows that these flares aren’t just a problem from a natural gas waste perspective, but that they are also a leading cause of methane pollution because the oil and gas industry isn’t operating them properly. Putting regulations on the books to ensure flares are operating as efficiently as they should be (things like a minimum 98% efficiency requirements and auto igniters to ensure they stay lit and don’t blow out) must be addressed in the state’s comprehensive methane rules expected later this year. And NMOGA’s lack of ambition on comprehensive methane regulations won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been following this issue closely. After all, modeling has shown that the methane rule recommendations they published last year would only lead to a 16% reduction in pollution, a far cry from the 60% cut attainable from nationally leading standards.