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Complaint filed against BLM lease sale, environmentalist cite air pollution concerns

Environmentalist groups formally protested a land lease sale to the oil and gas industry in New Mexico, to be held in December by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM announced the sale in October, which includes 54 parcels in the Carlsbad and Roswell areas.

Parcels are nominated by industry officials after being identified as ideal for oil and gas activities.

A 10-day protest period for the sale ended Wednesday, and BLM spokesperson Cathy Garber said the agency will review all complaints gathered.

“A decision will not be made regarding each protest until a thorough internal review has been completed,” she said.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and The Wilderness Society (TWS) filed joint complaints about the sale, citing a lack of oversight related to methane emissions as the administration of President Donald Trump aimed to rollback regulations created during the presidency of former President Barrack Obama.

The groups said the ongoing development in the area, expected to result in up to 6,000 new wells in the next 20 years. The development could also result in $16.5 million in lost revenue, records show, over the next 10 years with more than 81,000 tons of air pollution every year.

Jon Goldstein, EDF director of regulatory and legislative affairs, said the BLM has given up its responsibility to protect the environment in New Mexico amid a recent oil boom in the Permian Basin of southeast New Mexico and west Texas.

“By allowing for tens of millions of dollars in more waste and hundreds of thousands of tons in increased pollution, the Bureau of Land Management is putting industry interests ahead of New Mexico communities and taxpayers,” he said. “As BLM abdicates its responsibility to the people of New Mexico, the state must step up to the plate to reduce methane pollution and waste.”

The group is not looking to stop the lease sale, Goldstein said, but advocate for adding stipulations to the sales requiring operators to inspect facilities for leaks while implementing technology to prevent leaks and reducing venting and flaring.

He said the Trump administration has created a “dramatic shift” away from previous efforts to reduce emissions.

“It’s creating a bid problem for the natural gas industry,” Goldstein said. “It undermines their branding as a cleaner energy source. The BLM is not doing its job. They’re doing a disservice to New Mexico.”

Chase Huntley, senior director of the Energy and Climate Program at The Wilderness Society, said millions of taxpayer dollars are lost each year from methane escaping from oil and gas facilities.

“More methane is wasted from oil and gas production on federal and tribal lands in New Mexico than any other state, and yet the Bureau of Land Management continues to foolishly operate as if this fact does not exist,” Huntley said. “Failing to include any measure to address waste in the lease terms for parcels in the December sale is a bad deal for taxpayers, public health and the environment.”

In the complaint addressed to Jim Stovall, director of the BLM’s Pecos District, which comprises land in Eddy, Lea and parts of Chaves counties, the EDF and WTS pointed to “inadequate” provisions to prevent natural gas emissions.

The Waste Prevention, Production Subject to Royalties and Resource Conservation rule, also known as the Methane Rule, was enacted during the final months of Obama’s presidency. It calls on oil and gas producers to provide added infrastructure, studies and funding intended to reduce the venting or flaring of natural gasses.

Major provisions were recently rescinded by the Trump administration, and the complaint also criticized changing regulations at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and “a lack” of gas release related provisions in the BLM Carlsbad Field Office’s proposed changes to its resource management plan (RMP).

“Currently, there are inadequate measures in place to ensure the minimization of natural gas waste and methane emissions from the proposed lease parcels,” read the complaint.

“BLM has failed to ensure adequate measures are in place to minimize waste. BLM has the legal obligation and authority to require waste reduction measures and has a mandate to reduce waste.”

After the methane rule’s revision, the complaint alleged several issues related to emissions were left unaddressed by state regulations, the RMP or the revised rule.

This included the prohibition of venting natural gas, requiring operators to report monthly gas capture targets and volumes vented, flared or leaked.

The complaint also called for stricter guidelines for inspections of facilities, and waste minimization requirements that were specified in the 2016 rule.

“In the context of this lease sale, BLM had the opportunity to mitigate the impacts from associated methane emissions by incorporating waste minimization stipulations as lease notices in the lease terms,” the complaint read.

“Specifically, BLM failed to consider or incorporate lease notices to address the six areas we identified as covered under the 2016 final rule but left unaddressed by New Mexico’s state regulations, the revised BLM rule or existing RMP stipulations,” read the complaint.

Moreover, the complaint accused the BLM of failing to study the actual impact of methane emissions on the environment and public health.

“BLM has failed to adequately quantify potential lifecycle methane emissions and analyze impacts from increased methane emissions using the social cost of methane,” the complaint read. “BLM must develop and include stipulations in the lease terms to reduce natural gas waste and mitigate impacts from associated methane emissions.”

The complaint came as the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association touted a decline in methane emissions per EPA data gathered from about 8,000 producers.

The Permian saw a reduction of 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), from 8.4 million metric tons in 2016, to 8.3 million in 2017.

The San Juan declined by about 727,750 metric tons CO2e, down from about 5.4 million in 2016 to 4.6 million in 2017.

“Absent any new regulation, oil and natural gas producers are leading the way in decreasing methane emissions,” said NMOGA Executive Director Ryan Flynn. “Falling methane emissions prove that we can increase production and protect the environment at the same time – it doesn’t have to be a choice.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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