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Ozone rule puts clearer, healthier skies on the horizon

Everyone deserves clean air to breathe, and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has a responsibility to protect citizens from threats to air quality, including harmful ground-level ozone. Breathing ozone causes chest pain, coughing and throat irritation. It exacerbates respiratory conditions, including asthma and bronchitis. It muddies our skies, obscuring the enchanting views we treasure.

Last week, we proposed regulations meant to reduce air pollution in the oil and gas industry that forms ozone in New Mexico. This rule would protect impacted communities and spur the industry to curb emissions through the use of cutting-edge technology to control emissions and by requiring increased leak monitoring and repairs.

Solving our ozone problem won’t happen overnight, but this is a critical step. It’s also a move toward climate goals set by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during her first days in office: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 45% or more by 2030. By tackling ozone pollution, we’re also reducing emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. We estimate our rule will eliminate emissions of over 851 million pounds of methane annually.

If adopted by the Environmental Improvement Board, we will lead the nation in creative and innovative rules that hold industry accountable while ensuring compliance is the path of least resistance. Here are the principal ways this rule works to reduce emissions that create ozone:

1. Impacted communities first

The proposed rule will reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and oxides of nitrogen – which combine to create ozone – by over 110,000 tons a year combined. That’s equivalent to taking 8 million passenger vehicles off the road annually. The reductions will occur in communities with the most ozone pollution, including Chaves, Doña Ana, Eddy, Lea, Rio Arriba, San Juan, Sandoval and Valencia counties. Thirty-eight percent of New Mexicans live in these counties, where poverty levels are above the national average and most residents are Hispanic or Latino.

2. No exemptions

100% of all oil and gas operations are covered in the counties with the highest levels of ozone pollution. The largest emitters are subject to the strictest emission control requirements on a scaled basis. At a minimum, all oil and gas operators must routinely look for leaks and fix them within 15 days or less.

3. Game-changing technologies

NMED’s rule allows the use of fuel cells in lieu of flares as control devices. Fuel cells chemically convert hydrocarbons, i.e. VOCs and methane, to electricity, which could replace using diesel fuel to power equipment or be sold to utilities. The rule also requires and incentivizes companies to use real-time and remote monitoring technologies via satellite, airships, planes and more to increase the accuracy and speed of reporting.

4. Compliance assurance

NMED has seven air inspectors. It would take over four years for one inspector conducting five inspections daily to inspect their share of 50,000-plus oil and gas wells. Instead, our rule requires companies use a new database that syncs and consolidates monitoring systems. Reports can be easily sent to NMED for increased oversight, allowing us to maximize the use of our limited resources.

This rule was developed alongside the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to create a complementary framework to reduce pollution. Over the past two years, we spoke to thousands of citizens, scientists, oil and gas operators, and environmental organizations – and the rule vastly improved as a result. The public will also have opportunities to comment on the proposed rule as it moves forward. This is what good government looks like, and how Gov. Lujan Grisham solves New Mexico’s problems.

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