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U.S. reps seek stricter natural gas regulations

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U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., left, Deb Haaland, D-N.M., and Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., ask questions Monday during a congressional subcommittee hearing about oil and gas leases near Chaco Culture National Historic Park in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Democratic members of a U.S. House committee – including two members of New Mexico’s delegation – expressed concern Monday that lax oil and natural gas regulations are putting state residents at risk and depriving the state of revenue it should be getting.

While taxes and royalties from fossil fuel production have long helped prop up New Mexico’s budget, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently ordered Cabinet secretaries to come up with a plan to reduce methane emissions. She also signed legislation aimed at moving the state away from its oil and gas reliance – and toward solar, wind and other types of renewable energy.

That effort drew praise from members of the state’s congressional delegation.

“I would love for us to explore other ways for folks to make a living,” U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., said during a field hearing Monday at the Roundhouse. “We shouldn’t have to suffer every time the price of oil goes down.”

A day after touring Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Haaland and other members of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources listened to testimony from state officials, tribal leaders and health policy experts during the nearly four-hour hearing, the first held by the subcommittee since Democrats won control of the U.S. House in the November general election.

No Republican members attended the hearing, and oil and gas industry voices were largely absent.

U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., said invitations were sent out to GOP members and representatives of the oil and gas industries.

“They did not choose to respond,” Lowenthal told reporters.

However, New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Ryan Flynn, who attended part of Monday’s hearing but did not testify, described it as a “one-sided affair.”

“We’ve got a good record when it comes to methane emission and water use, and I didn’t see that those issues were highlighted,” Flynn told the Journal.

“This industry provides more benefits to the state than any other industry, and it’s not even close,” he said, referring to an unprecedented $1.2 billion state budget surplus that’s due in large part to an oil production boom in the Permian Basin in southeastern New Mexico and Texas.

The congressional field hearing came just weeks after members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation introduced legislation that would prevent the sale of oil and gas leases on federally owned lands within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historic Park, a site considered sacred by many Native Americans.

In response to questioning, several tribal leaders said Monday that they support the legislation, though at least one Navajo Nation resident voiced concern about how it would affect allotments owned by tribal members.

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., accused opponents of the bill of spreading misinformation and said the legislation would apply only to federally owned land.

“This should not be controversial,” Luján said during Monday’s hearing.

The hearing focused largely on methane emissions, which are climbing amid the oil production surge, according to a recent analysis from a prominent environmental group.

During their tour of the Four Corners region, members of the congressional subcommittee used infrared cameras to observe the release or leakage of excess natural gas, which consists primarily of methane.

Luján cited an estimate that New Mexico could be losing out on up to $47 million annually in potential revenue due to methane being released into the atmosphere instead of being sold to consumers.

Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham, a former member of Congress who was elected governor last year, told the subcommittee the state is moving in a different direction from that of President Donald Trump’s administration, which has reversed previous federal methane regulations.

“We must protect this region … with the same vigor we protect the air we breathe,” Lujan Grisham said. “We are laboring with a federal government that has failed in a regulatory sense and in an omission of leadership.”

Methane emissions have also been linked to air quality problems, and at least one Four Corners resident described the pollution as omnipresent.

“You can smell the pollution and see the flares being released every day,” said Kendra Pinto, a Navajo Nation member.

She also said she had been urging members of the state’s congressional delegation to visit the region for years.

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