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New Mexico’s lower-emitting oil and natural gas sites would no longer be exempt from proposed ozone regulations under the final proposed rules unveiled by the state Environment Department on Thursday.
NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said public input and emissions modeling drove the major change from the agency’s draft rules introduced last summer.
“From a science-based perspective, as well as a public health perspective and an environmental perspective, it was the right thing to do to focus on including those wells in our rule,” Kenney told reporters.
All operators would need to calculate emissions and have a professional engineer certify that data under the proposal.
Oil and gas companies would need to find and fix equipment leaks at least once a month, and fix the problems within 15 days.
NMED and Environmental Protection Agency data from Permian Basin flyovers in 2020 showed that oil and gas storage tanks and flares were leaking at higher rates than in 2019.
“It’s clear that self-policing is not the answer,” Kenney said.
The proposed rules target industry equipment that emits volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.
The pollutants are the main ingredients in ozone, a gas that worsens respiratory issues.
American Lung Association data released last month shows that Eddy County is one of only two rural U.S. counties to rank in the top 25 most polluted places for ozone pollution.
Lea, Sandoval and San Juan counties also earned failing grades for ozone pollution.
NMED attributes the state’s ozone problem to oil and gas extraction, and vehicle emissions.
Texas and Mexico’s drifting pollution also contributes to New Mexico’s high ozone levels.
NMED estimates the rules would reduce the ozone-causing pollutants by about 129,000 tons each year – an emissions reduction equivalent to taking 8 million cars off the road.
The rules could also reduce as much as 425,000 tons of the greenhouse gas methane.
Enforcing the rules at thousands of well sites could be a balancing act for the agency’s seven inspectors.
“We’re not just going to throw our hands up and say we can’t do anything,” Kenney said. “We need to invest in the technologies that ensure compliance.”
The state’s enforcement efforts may include more flyovers with EPA, infrared drones and vans that monitor industry pollution at ground level.
Data from the Energy, Minerals and Resources Department’s new gas capture requirement could also help NMED determine whether an operator is following the rules.
Operators who don’t comply could be fined.
Exceptions for low-emitting “stripper wells” and other sites had drawn criticism from environmental groups before the NMED reversal in the final proposal.
Nathalie Eddy, an Earthworks field advocate for New Mexico and Colorado, said the revisions promise a “greater level of protection” for communities near production sites.
“Swift and bold action on a strong final rule is necessary to rein in dangerous oil and gas pollution that puts community health and our climate at risk,” Eddy said.
Bigger polluters would face more stringent requirements.
Control devices, enhanced leak detection technology and shorter repair deadlines could be mandatory for those operators under the proposed rules.
Oil and gas companies have provided state agencies with input and technical data about emissions and current technology since NMED began the regulatory process nearly two years ago.
Leland Gould, chairman of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said industry experts will work with NMED “to encourage greater innovation and cost-effective solutions, consistent with other regulatory requirements.”
“New Mexico should be a leader in responsible energy development,” Gould said, “And an appropriate regulatory framework will allow oil and natural gas to continue to deliver enormous fiscal and economic benefits to all New Mexicans, while reducing emissions, safeguarding natural resources and improving our environment.”
The regulations would apply to 50,000 wells, and oil and gas sites on federal, state and private land in the high-ozone counties of Chaves, Doña Ana, Eddy, Lea, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, San Juan and Valencia.
NMED doesn’t have authority to regulate operations on tribal land.
An NMED board will consider the proposed rules some time this fall.
If approved, the regulations would likely go into effect in spring 2022.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.