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Secretary McQueen turns back on science

Few state agencies are as little known yet have as much reach into the lives of New Mexicans as the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. Touching everything from fighting forest fires to protecting New Mexico’s air and water from mining and oil and gas development to managing our state parks – EMNRD is like rolling the U.S. Department of Interior, Department of Energy and the Forest Service into one.

Because of this reach, it is crucial that the head of this agency be committed to scientific approaches to policy issues. Unfortunately at his recent confirmation hearing, Gov. Susana Martinez’s new EMNRD Secretary Ken McQueen created serious uncertainty about his commitment to sound science.

During some tough questioning from the Senate Rules Committee, McQueen displayed a troubling lack of understanding of the role of the oil and gas industry in adding to the massive methane hot spot hovering over northwest New Mexico. Scientists from NASA and NOAA have directly tied this methane pollution problem largely to leaking natural gas wells, pipelines and associated infrastructure in the San Juan Basin, but McQueen tried to sidestep that fact and blame the problem on natural causes, a common – and commonly debunked – industry talking point.

This might be understandable for someone who is still coming up to speed on issues in a new job. But that isn’t the case with McQueen. Until last May, he ran the San Juan Basin operations for WPX Energy – one of the largest natural gas producers in the area.

The fact is, New Mexico has a methane pollution problem so severe you can see it from space. Industry talking points won’t fix it, only action will.

Studies have shown that New Mexico wastes more natural gas every year from our federal and tribal lands than any other state – $100 million worth, or enough to heat every home in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces for a year.

This is a huge waste of taxpayer owned resources, depriving the state budget of millions more in royalty payments every year that could, and should, be invested in vital state needs like education.

This wasted natural gas is coming from leaks at poorly maintained oil and gas wells and outdated industry practices like flaring – simply burning off natural gas rather than getting it into a pipeline where it can be put to good use. And since the primary component of this natural gas is methane – a very potent greenhouse gas – this waste is also impacting our changing climate and adding to the Delaware-sized methane pollution cloud hovering over the Four Corners.

New Mexico leaders have recognized this problem and have been fighting tirelessly for several years to get strong new methane waste reduction rules in place from the Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management. Last spring, 40 elected officials from across New Mexico sent a letter to Washington supporting strong BLM methane waste rules. The congressional delegation including U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and members of Congress U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Lujan and Michelle Lujan Grisham are also fighting for these money saving rules. And N.M. Attorney General Hector Balderas has been defending them in court.

Unfortunately, some in Congress and even Gov. Martinez would like to see these rules rolled back. A few weeks ago a congressional review act resolution repealing the BLM’s methane waste rule passed the U.S. House, and as soon as this week this legislation could be heard in the U.S. Senate as well.

New Mexico has a lot to lose from federal methane waste rollbacks since currently the state – unlike several of our neighbors – has no state regulatory requirements to fall back on. We need these standards to help solve this waste problem and keep these dollars at home.

Leading EMNRD is a tough job – I speak from experience on this point. As he settles into his new role, I hope Secretary McQueen will take another look at letting science and sensible policy be his guide on issues like oil and gas waste and pollution that are so important to New Mexico.

Jon Goldstein is a former Cabinet Secretary of New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.