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Editorial: New methane rule is a collaboration that strikes the right balance

Driving to Eunice or Jal for a Friday night football game, one has hardly needed GPS. The sight of plumes of fire flickering into the night sky and the smell of burning methane have been enough to let you know you were nearing either town.

Producers have been venting or flaring methane – the main constituent of natural gas – to relieve pressure at well sites for generations. Venting releases uncombusted natural gas directly into the air; flaring burns off excess gas by igniting it.

Until recently, there had been little consensus in New Mexico about how to deal with flaring. Environmentalists called flaring a wasteful use of a natural resource and a major cause of climate change because methane has a much greater warming potential than carbon dioxide. Some operators said they didn’t have the equipment or finances to monitor for and/or detect and repair leaks, others said they had already done sufficient upgrades.

And in the meantime, venting and flaring continued to be commonplace in New Mexico’s portion of the Permian Basin. A report last year from the Environmental Defense Fund said 11% of well flares in the Permian Basin were malfunctioning, including 5% that were completely unlit. And while New Mexico had no capture-and-destruction rate requirement, Texas required that 98% of excess methane be captured and destroyed during flaring.

Now, after years of finger-pointing – and more than a year of public meetings – there have finally been months of productive negotiations involving oil and gas producers, a coalition of environmental groups and the state Oil Conservation Commission. The commission announced new methane regulations last week.

What is so amazing about the announcement? The final rules drew support from both the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association and environmental groups. Something needed to be done, and the oil and gas companies, environmentalists and regulators engaged in good faith.

The new rules target gas waste and methane emissions by prohibiting the routine venting and flaring of natural gas, while granting exceptions for emergencies and equipment malfunctions, with preference given to flaring over venting. They ban venting or flaring during drilling, completion or production operations. Operators must do as well as our neighbors to the east and meet a 98% gas capture rate by the end of 2026, and any flaring or venting must be reported to the state. The new rules also regulate gas waste in pipelines and gathering facilities.

The state’s first methane rule does come at a cost. Older storage tanks and flaring equipment will have to be retrofitted with new controllers and monitoring systems. New facilities must meet muster. But the OCC took the concerns of producers seriously by not prescribing specific technologies that could soon be overpriced or obsolete. The new rules give operators flexibility on how to meet emissions targets, whether by infrared monitoring systems or no-bleed pneumatic controllers.

The buy-in from producers is the glue that can hold it all together, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining our status as the third-largest oil-producing state in the nation.

“It shows we can meet our ambitious climate goals while being home to a robust oil and gas industry,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement.

The governor, NMOGA and the environmental groups all deserve credit. We’re not sure of the last time we credited all three entities in a single sentence, but we hope to do so again as the state Environment Department considers new rules targeting air pollution in the oil and gas industry.

Until now, many folks talked about venting and flaring, but little was done.

The bottom-line reality is that all New Mexicans want cleaner air, especially residents of Eunice and Jal.

The new methane rules are an example of how government is supposed to work, balancing competing interests and arriving at a common-sense solution that is agreeable to all parties, even if it means visitors to the Permian Basin have to use their GPS instead of plumes of fire as their guiding light.

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.