Although concerns about oil field flaring have largely been eclipsed by headlines of the coronavirus and the bust cycle the oil and gas industry finds itself in, environmentalists, oil and natural gas producers and state regulators thankfully appear to be close to reaching an agreement on the state’s first methane rule, although the devil remains in the details.
When she campaigned for governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham committed to developing the state’s first methane regulations. Currently, the state lacks any regulations on the portion of methane that must be destroyed during flaring, while neighboring Texas requires a 98% destruction rate. Flaring burns natural gas to prevent unsafe buildup or to dispose of excess product, and it is surprising to learn oil-rich Texas has stricter flaring requirements than we do.
A recent report from the Austin, Texas-based Environmental Defense Fund states 11% of well flares in the Permian Basin were malfunctioning, including 5% that were completely unlit. The report states about 7% of flared natural gas is vented directly into the atmosphere, making flaring the largest source of methane emissions in the Permian Basin.
The leader of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association tells the Journal Editorial Board the coalition of oil and natural gas companies understands it has a responsibility to reduce its methane emissions associated with flaring, but it wants to do so in a way that doesn’t stifle technological innovations. NMOGA presented emissions reduction strategies in a recent report, including requiring a gas capture plan from operators and reducing the allowed flaring period at new wells from 60 to 30 days. NMOGA executive director Ryan Flynn says the industry is investing in infrastructure and maintenance technologies to reduce the amount of natural gas flared to reduce emissions and combat climate change.
Adrienne Sandoval, director of the state’s Oil Conservation Division, says operators are required to report venting and flaring but the state is lacking additional data explaining why the operator vented or flared.
The EDF is also proposing state regulations for leak inspections at well sites. The federal Environmental Protection Agency requires leak inspections twice a year, but New Mexico has no such requirement. NMOGA says quarterly inspections proposed by the EDF make no sense because of delays in making repairs if they are discovered only every few months. Flynn says NMOGA, a 90-year-old organization with nearly 1,000 members representing all facets of the oil and natural gas industry, supports a strong leak-detection-and-repair program, with as much flexibility for operators as possible. He says oil and gas producers are using innovative technologies such as infrared cameras to monitor production equipment and facilities for leaks or other anomalies, and these devices can notify operators in real time, allowing for potential issues to be addressed more quickly.
State agencies are proceeding with the development of methane regulations – the New Mexico Environment Department regulates methane as an air pollutant, and the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department regulates the gas as an industry waste product. They discussed efforts at a virtual public meeting last week and say they should have draft rules prepared sometime this summer. That’s a positive step forward for all New Mexicans who want cleaner air, especially residents of Eunice and Jal where flaring is concentrated in New Mexico’s portion of the Permian Basin.
After years of being unable to reach a compromise on a methane rule, one finally appears within reach that is acceptable to producers, environmentalists and regulators. While technical issues remain to be hammered out, those cannot be allowed to scuttle an agreement. Stakeholders need to continue developing a methane rule that doesn’t threaten the viability of the state’s oil and gas industry while mandating cleaner air.
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.