Constant gas flares lighting up the sky over New Mexico’s oil fields may soon be a scene from the past, under new rules proposed by the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to reduce methane waste in the oil and gas industry.
The Oil Conservation Commission began two weeks of remotely held online hearings for the proposed rules on Monday with a full day of public comment.
Oil and gas operators would need to meet a 98% gas capture rate by the end of 2026 under the proposed rule.
But some commenters, including attorney Doug Meiklejohn with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, said nearly six years is too much time.
“The industry has known about the problem of excess methane emissions in New Mexico for many years,” Meiklejohn said. “We believe the compliance period should be no more than three years.”
The rule would ban routine venting and flaring of natural gas, which contains methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. Operators flare excess gas to relieve pressure, or because it is not economical to capture and transport the gas.
‘Still too onerous’
Stephen Robertson, executive vice president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, said rules should reduce emissions “without putting the oil and gas industry in New Mexico out of business” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even though reporting categories have been reduced from the previous draft of the rule to this final proposed rule, they are still too onerous, will lead to inaccuracies and do not prevent waste,” he said. “Accounting software is not designed for so many additional categories, and if required, upgrades will require 18 to 24 months.”
Definitions for emergencies and malfunctions as exceptions to the no-flaring rule also are too broad, Robertson said, and “likely to result in conflict.”
Rep. Joanne Ferrary, a Las Cruces Democrat, noted that potential revenue lost from methane waste could make a big difference in funding for state programs.
“It’s costing our schools millions in revenue, ruining our air and harming our climate now and for the future generations,” Ferrary said. “We need every dollar available for our educational system, and we can’t afford to waste methane dollars.”
Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have skyrocketed in the Permian Basin in the past decade.
The oil boom has been producing record revenue for New Mexico before the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, oil and natural gas production and fuel combustion contributed 53% of New Mexico’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, according to the state’s latest climate report.
“We are looking ahead to how we can be more aggressive in tackling difficult sectors – oil and gas, transportation – and implementing broader market mechanisms,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wrote in the report.
Aerial videos and monitoring data collected by the state Environment Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show Permian Basin oil and gas sites are leaking more emissions than last year.
Flyovers showed that the overall leak rate increased from 2% in 2019 to 5% in 2020.
Emily Wolf with the National Parks Conservation Association said that such unchecked emissions threaten sites such as Carlsbad Caverns and Chaco Canyon.
“Skyglow (from flaring) adversely impacts nighttime scenic quality, visual resources and wildlife including bats and the insects on which they feed,” Wolf said.
Under the proposed rules, operators could receive credit for yearly gas capture goals if they find and fix equipment leaks before the state does, although EMNRD may withhold drilling permits or levy fines against non-compliant companies.
Wendy Atcitty, whose family lives on the Navajo Nation in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico, said she recently counted 14 well sites within two miles of her family’s land. She said the state should notify communities when methane emissions reach dangerous levels.
“I wasn’t aware as a child while walking outside on my family’s land that I was breathing harmful methane, volatile organic compounds and ozone gases into my lungs,” Atcitty said.
New Mexico’s proposed rules would be stricter than any current federal methane regulations. The OCC hearing is scheduled to last until Jan. 15.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.