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Strong rules on methane will help New Mexico

When newly elected Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham set out on the campaign trail, one of her promises to the citizens of New Mexico was to begin to hold the oil and gas industry across the state accountable for its contributions to air pollution and climate change. Less than a month into her administration and the governor has followed through on this ambitious campaign promise.

Through a bold initiative, Lujan Grisham is calling for a 45 percent reduction in greenhouse gas pollution in New Mexico by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. With this executive order, the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and the Environment Department will develop strategies focused on reducing methane emissions from oil and gas operations. This is vitally important given that more methane is wasted through venting, flaring and leakage on federal and tribal lands in New Mexico than in any other state. In 2018, New Mexico saw worsening air quality, partly from oil and gas development in the Permian Basin. On the other end of the state, the largest cloud of toxic methane in the U.S. has been documented over the Four Corners area.

This directive comes as the Trump Administration aggressively rolls back clean air rules and emission standards throughout the country. Gov. Lujan Grisham’s executive order is an opportunity to reduce waste of a critical resource while improving air quality within the state, despite attacks coming from Washington, D.C.

The National Parks Conservation Association applauds this effort to place the interests of New Mexico citizens above those of the oil and gas industry. Recent estimates suggest that taxpayers in New Mexico lose as much as $27 million annually through wasted gas, funds that could be used for other critical needs in our state. In addition, vulnerable Navajo communities, and others living in oil and gas areas bear the brunt of serious health risks and other impacts. And this methane negatively affects visitor experiences at some of our most cherished national parks, such as Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Aztec Ruins National Monument, where they might encounter hazy views and the loss of dark night skies caused by light pollution from nearby methane flaring.

As New Mexico officials craft their plans to protect people and our public lands, some lessons can be taken from recent actions in Colorado and California. The advanced rules in both of these states require oil and gas companies to more frequently inspect and repair infrastructure associated with production and transmission. In the case of Colorado, the state requires certain equipment to be inspected at least once every two weeks. Industry is then required to repair any methane leaks discovered during inspections within 30 days, significantly reducing the amount of fugitive emissions escaping into the atmosphere. A recent state-sanctioned report found that 98.4 percent of all detected leaks were fixed within the allotted time frame. A third-party survey indicated seven out of 10 oil and gas producers in Colorado found that the benefits of increased inspections outweighed the costs.

Similar rules are appearing in other states, including Pennsylvania and, most recently, Wyoming. With the path to reducing pollution already paved, similar initiatives would be a relatively straightforward task here in New Mexico. As an effective way of managing methane and other emissions in our state, new regulations should require frequent monitoring of oil and gas infrastructure, along with a 30-day window to repair discovered leaks.

Now is our chance to be a national leader in protecting the air for our communities, and those who visit our national parks and other public lands – we can be at the top of the list for a change, rather than the bottom. We support Governor Lujan Grisham and her administration as they develop a strong and enforceable plan for the state.

Ernie Atencio, of Arroyo Hondo, is a native New Mexican and the New Mexico senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association