Editorial: NM needs O&G, environmentalists, regulators and residents to collaborate on methane and ozone rules

With a methane cloud hanging over the San Juan Basin so big scientists can see it from outer space, something needed to be done.

Producers had been venting or flaring methane at well sites without penalization for generations. It had become so common in the Permian Basin that tiny Eunice and Jal stood out in the night skies from above.

So banning the routine flaring and venting of natural gas except in cases of emergencies and malfunctions (not just to relieve pressure at well sites), as the state Oil Conservation Division did in March was the right move.

But with five New Mexico counties – Doña Ana, Eddy, Lea, San Juan and Sandoval – earning failing ozone pollution grades in the American Lung Association’s latest air quality rankings, we still have a lot of work to do. San Juan County consistently has ozone levels at or approaching federal limits, and ground-level ozone exceeds federal standards in southeastern New Mexico.

Under new rules proposed by the state Environment Department, ozone is targeted as an air pollutant. Operators would be required to find and fix oil and gas equipment that leaks or emits volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxides, the main ingredients that react in sunlight to form ozone gas. By retrofitting equipment, regulators can also slash the smaller amounts of methane emissions that often accompany the chemicals.

The Environment Department estimates the rules would reduce ozone-forming pollutants by about 129,000 tons each year – the equivalent of taking 8 million cars off the road every year – and also reduce about 425,000 tons of methane.

Unfortunately, the rule’s latest version has received pushback from lawmakers and industry concerned about smaller oil and gas producers and New Mexico’s budget. But we’ve heard that before.

As Environment Department Secretary James Kenney says, “It’s clear that self-policing is not the answer.”

For too long, operators of oil and natural gas wells in New Mexico haven’t had to report the specific reasons for flaring or venting – or even emissions data – to state regulators. Inspections of production sites, pipelines and gathering facilities have also been limited as operators have basically been on the honor system.

The result has been “higher than expected rates” of methane leaks and other air pollutants at Permian Basin storage tanks and well sites, according to aerial footage compiled by state and federal regulators.

The proposed rules would require professional engineers to certify emissions data calculated by each oil and gas operator. The new rules would also require operators to capture 98% of natural gas by the end of 2026.

Before you dismiss this as too green, it’s the same flaring capture rate Texas has.

Companies would be able to earn credits toward the 98% target by locating and addressing methane leaks before the state steps in. Operators who fail to meet their yearly gas capture targets could face penalties, shut-in wells or lose opportunities for additional permits.

It’s time to clamp down on the bad actors with regulations that have teeth. This has been in the works for years, so no one should get away with claiming they didn’t see it coming.

An Environment Department panel will begin to hear the agency’s proposed rules Sept. 20. The hearing will likely last two weeks; new rules could go into effect as early as March.

Methane is a main contributor to global warming, trapping heat in the atmosphere. Several New Mexico cities hit record-high temperatures just last week. Temperatures were in the mid-90s or higher across much of the state, unusual for this time of year, National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Guyer tells the Journal. Farmington has had triple-digit temperatures 14 days this year, the most on record.

Environmental groups support the Environment Department’s broad goals, but industry groups oppose the lack of exceptions for small producers. While reasonable phase-ins and accommodations make sense, allowing outsized pollution doesn’t.

Some lawmakers say the equipment and operational costs necessary for compliance would be especially burdensome for mature wells that produce low volumes of oil and natural gas. That may be so. No one said reversing generations of polluting would be without its costs. But we mustn’t dismiss the incalculable benefits of cleaner air. Improving air quality from Farmington to Jal and also reducing surface temperatures are goals we should all share. The technical summary of the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says sustained methane mitigation can help get us there by reducing surface ozone.

Sept. 20 should kick off productive discussions involving oil and gas producers, environmental groups, state regulators and the folks living under those methane clouds and breathing the smog from ground-level ozone.

We can significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, maintain our status as a leading producer of oil and natural gas in the nation and all breathe better if we find that common ground.

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.

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