Environmentalists in New Mexico argued recently proposed federal rules intended to curb methane air pollution from oil and gas operations didn’t go far enough to cut emissions, as the agency sought to reduce the impacts of fossil fuels.
The Bureau of Land Management on Monday released a proposal to add regulations that would increase royalty payments operators pay on emissions, while requiring low-emission valves and other technologies be used at extraction facilities on federal land across the U.S.
The BLM also proposed requiring operators develop plans to detect and repair leaks at their facilities and impose monthly limits on flaring or the burning of excess natural gas.
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Rules would also allow the BLM to delay or deny permits for oil and gas operators to avoid “excessive” flaring, the proposal read.
If enacted, the BLM said the proposal would generate up to $39.8 million a year in additional royalties and prevent the waste of “billions” of cubic feet of natural gas.
Releasing natural gas through venting and flaring increased “significantly” in recent decades, the BLM reported, as the agency estimated about 44.2 billion cubic feet of gas was lost annually between 2010 and 2020 – enough to serve the power needs of 675,000 homes.
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That’s most than quadruple the 11 billion cubic feet the BLM reported was vented or flared between 1990 and 2000.
It’s a problem Kayley Shoup of Carlsbad, amid the U.S.’ busiest oilfield in the Permian Basin, said the federal government should do more to address.
She’s an organizer with an environmental group in the city known as Citizens Caring for the Future, and has worked locally and with national organizations to study oil and gas pollution in the region.
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The Permian, which covers southeast New Mexico and West Texas, produces about 5.5 million barrels of oil per day, according to the latest data from Energy Information Administration (EIA), but also has some of the worst air quality in the nation – exacerbated by the industry’s emissions of greenhouse gases like methane.
Worsening air quality led the Environmental Protection Agency to consider listing the Permian Basin region in both states under “non-attainment” of federal air quality standards, a move that could restrict future oil and gas permitting.
The EPA was also expected to release this year or in early 2023 regulations to cut emissions through requirements similar to the BLM’s at all oil and gas facilities in the U.S. – both new and existing sources.
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And earlier this month the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced it uncovered a plume of methane over the Carlsbad area about 2 miles wide, believed to be created by nearby oil and gas operations.
“While we strongly support charging royalties on all wasted gas, reforming royalties generally, and incentives to cut unnecessary waste in the draft rule, BLM must go further,” Shoup said.
She pointed to two recent regulatory actions to curb emissions at two New Mexico state agencies: one last year by the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) and one this year at the New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED).
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EMNRD’s rules called for operators to capture 98 percent of produced gas by 2026 while banning routine flaring, while NMED increased requirements for emission reporting and repair at all sites in the state.
“The rule should follow the example of leading states like New Mexico, Colorado, and Alaska by eliminating wasteful venting and flaring,” Shoup said.
“Eliminating waste conserves domestic energy resources, protects the health of frontline communities, and ensures taxpayers and our education system benefit from the development of publicly owned minerals as New Mexico transitions away from our overdependence on fossil fuels.”
Joe Vigil, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, a trade group representing fossil fuel companies throughout the state, said operators were already taking part in multiple efforts to mitigate pollution.
He said New Mexico operators worked “rapidly” to comply with both regulations at both EMNRD and NMED.
Further, “excessive” regulations, Vigil said, could impede oil and gas production and the boost it offers to New Mexico’s economy.
Vigil pointed to $10.8 billion in distributions from New Mexico’s permanent funds tied to oil and gas production, along with about $5.9 billion in transfers to the State’s General Fund and its reserves this year.
That included $3.1 billion in oil and gas revenue, Vigil noted, about a third of the state’s overall operating revenue.
“While we are committed to sustainable energy policies, excessive regulation reduces energy production that supports thousands of New Mexico jobs and generates millions of dollars of economic output that funds our schools, first responders, and vital infrastructure,” Vigil said.
“We encourage government to continue to work with our experts in the field along these lines to continue to produce clean oil and gas that fuels our nation and the world.”
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Sister Joan Brown of New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light, a consortium of faith leaders in the state also working on environmental issues, said the federal government had a “moral responsibility” to protect the environment from industrial development like fossil fuels.
She said venting and flaring must be completely banned on federal land to truly make a difference.
“We all have an ethical and moral responsibility to care for our land, water, air, and communities, which are sacred gifts,” Brown said. “The BLM also has a legal responsibility to eliminate the waste of public resources, and its draft waste rule has important provisions but ultimately falls short of that obligation.”
BLM Directory Tracy Stone-Manning said the rules were intended to increase taxpayer returns from oil and gas operations on public land.
The proposal will soon be posted in the federal register and public comments, which Stone-Manning said would inform the ultimate rulemaking, were accepted for 60 days.
“No one likes to waste natural resources from our public lands. This draft rule is a common-sense, environmentally responsible solution as we address the damage that wasted natural gas causes,” she said. “It puts the American taxpayer first and ensures producers pay appropriate royalties.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.