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Editorial: Time to regulate methane without killing oil and gas

When it comes to methane, New Mexico is both first and last.

We have the highest concentration of atmospheric methane in the nation — a “hotspot” the size of Delaware over the San Juan Basin, as shown by NASA imagery. And we have the least amount of regulation controlling methane emissions, according to a new study from The Wilderness Society and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

So now that President Donald Trump’s administration has rolled back the Obama-era rule requiring energy companies to capture methane, it is essential that if New Mexico is going to reduce the former, it addresses the latter. Yet it must do so in a manner that balances the goals of cleaner air and a smaller carbon footprint with keeping the state’s oil and gas industry, third largest in the nation, delivering hundreds of millions of dollars into state coffers to fund schools, hospitals, law enforcement and infrastructure.

Right now New Mexico has exactly zero requirements that meet or exceed any in the rolled-back Bureau of Land Management rule, the report says, which means significant sources of methane waste are unregulated. And that means not only are oil and gas going up in smoke, but so are millions of dollars in tax revenues – an estimated $27 million annually, the report says.

And while the industry disputes that number and touts self-regulation and innovation that have reportedly dropped methane leakage 46 percent in New Mexico’s side of the San Juan Basin and 6 percent in the Permian Basin from 2011-2016, it is essential the state establish a fair and achievable framework for cleaning up our methane act. After all, this same industry is responsible for what state Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, a Republican-turned-Libertarian from Torrance County, has criticized for not cleaning up areas around hundreds of non-operating wells.

Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham campaigned in part on establishing state-level restrictions on methane emissions, and her transition team says “she’ll bring businesses, industry, and conservation leaders to the table to implement a statewide rule to curb methane waste and pollution in a balanced and effective way.” That’s important, because any regulation should be crafted to get producers to fix the system, not put them out of business so they can’t. As the Gold King Mine spill that fouled the Animas River in 2015 showed, the West is already littered with plenty of abandoned and seeping mines; it does not need a commensurate number of well heads added to those Dunn cites.

Lujan Grisham has an important balancing act ahead of her, one that if she can successfully accomplish will have everyone who lives in the region, as well as the oil and gas industry, breathing easier.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.