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State oil and gas permit proposal draws fire


Environmental organizations say the New Mexico Environment Department is proposing a revised permit approval process for construction of oil and gas facilities that would make the state’s industry-related air quality regulations “some of the worst in the country.”

Nearly two dozen groups sent a joint letter on Friday asking the department to “rescind and thoroughly revise” its proposal, which the state has been working on since August 2016.

The proposal would update the previous permit process, creating a standardized set of requirements for operators to file their applications, rather than the individualized process used now for each new or modified facility. The agency says that could help expedite permitting while improving monitoring and reporting on pollutant emissions and facility operations once they’re up and running.

It also would allow operators to use newer technologies to control emissions that didn’t exist in the past when previous requirements were written.

But environmental groups say the proposal does little to limit emissions of pollutants covered in the permit, such as volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Rather, it asks operators to estimate their expected emissions and indicate the technologies they will use to keep them within federal thresholds set by the Clean Air Act, said Jon Goldstein, regulatory and legislative affairs director for the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Federal thresholds are the least common denominator the Environment Department must set,” Goldstein said. “It’s not stepping up like other states to set more protective standards.”

Other states like Utah, Wyoming and Colorado have set much stricter standards, he added.

Environmentalists also criticized the proposal for ignoring methane emissions in permitting.

But the department and an industry spokesman say that’s because methane doesn’t fall under the Clean Air Act. It’s up to the state Oil Conservation Division to regulate it.

“To rope it in as part of Clean Air Act standards ignores the established process for rule making,” said New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Robert McEntyre. “Environmental groups are either misinformed or distorting the law to gain political points with their constituencies.”

In any case, New Mexico’s methane emissions have steadily fallen through industry controls, despite oil production climbing to all-time record levels, McEntyre said.

Still, Thomas Singer of the Western Environmental Law Center said the Oil Conservation Division oversees methane venting and flaring only during drilling and production, not leaks and other issues related to facility operations.

“We believe the Environment Department is shirking its responsibilities to control methane emissions as an air pollutant,” Singer said.

Environmentalists were also riled by a misunderstanding about deadlines to comment on the proposal, because of a miscommunication that responses were due Jan. 5, just one week after the proposal’s public release on Dec. 29.

The public comment period remains open until Jan. 31, and a public hearing will be held Feb. 12, said Environment Department spokesperson Allison Scott Majure.