Demands for the federal government to act on climate change rallied from New Mexico in anticipation of a federal report that could define how the federal government will proceed to allow oil and gas development on public land.
In January, the U.S. Department of the Interior imposed a halt on new leases companies need to drill for and produce oil and natural gas on federal land, while the Department conducted an agency-wide review of its regulations on operations.
A federal judge in Louisiana recently filed and injunction on the pause, but the DOI’s report was still to be released this summer, with many expecting it in June.
Any revisions to federal oil and gas activities could have major implications for New Mexico as the state relies on industry revenue for more than a third of its budget, while more than half of the state’s extraction operations occur on federal land – compared with neighboring Texas where most oil production is on private land that would not be impacted by federal policy.
Environmentalists called for stricter regulations they said were needed to reduce pollution and mitigate climate change, while oil and gas industry representatives called the pause and tougher regulations a “blockade” on New Mexico’s economy and demanded leases be resumed.
Dave Dubois, New Mexico’s state climatologist and professor at New Mexico State University said during a Wednesday public meeting held by environmental group Climate Advocates Voices Unidas (CAVU) that greenhouse gases from human activities like oil and gas extraction are slowly changing the composition of the atmosphere and the climate on Earth.
“As we tweak the atmosphere, we’re slowly tweaking away the balance of energy on our planet,” he said. “It’s something that we know quite a bit about now. We keep track of these gases, the concentration of these gases. We’re very concerned about the level of these greenhouse gases that moderate the temperature.”
Dubois said the Earth’s temperature trended upward since the 1970s or earlier, as droughts get worse and more extreme weather events are recorded.
“We’ve got to face up to the fact that the stuff we do everyday is impacting the climate all over the world,” he said. “We’re talking about the oil and gas industry and that’s something in our backyard. We’ve got to have regulations.
“We really need to migrate off fossil. Right now where we’re at, we’ve got to do this to keep the pollution to a minimum.”
Nathalie Eddy, New Mexico field advocate at non-profit Earthworks said through the organization’s work in studying oil and gas facilities throughout the state using infrared cameras, it was clear the industry was a heavy emitter of air pollutants that could worsen climate change.
Earthworks uses forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras to film alleged emissions the group posits would be invisible to the naked eye.
The cameras do not determine what is potentially being emitted but can prove a tool for investigators in finding possible leaks and emissions.
Eddy said the State of New Mexico’s enforcement actions were inadequate to address the issue and stronger federal action was needed.
“This oil and gas pollution and harm is everywhere and every day at every time,” Eddy said.
New Mexico groups call for permanent ban on oil and gas
Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter, director Camilla Feibelman said the federal government must take action to reduce environmental impacts like methane emissions and water contamination.
She said during a meeting last week hosted by the Sierra Club that widespread drought in New Mexico along with weather events like hurricanes throughout the world were evidence of the consequences of climate change that could be addressed through stronger regulations on oil and gas.
“We are behind. Things are worse than they’ve even been when it comes to climate change,” Feibelman said. “We are under a moral obligation to help this administration to do everything it can to deeply reform the oil and gas system. If we do not do that, we face an existential crisis.”
Mario Atencio with Dine Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, an environmental group based in the Navajo Nation which includes portions of northwest New Mexico said the pause on new leases should permanent due to the threat he said drilling poses to the environment and land.
Specifically, the pointed to extraction operations around Chaco Culture National Historical Park near San Juan and McKinley counties – an area known to be sacred to the Navajo but also for heavy natural gas production and mining.
“Just the philosophy of drilling and fracking the earth, that has repercussions over time to the people,” Atencio said. “In total, you can’t contain the fallout from oil and gas. You’re talking about an incredible amount of waste. Pausing is barely solving the problem. You need to have a permanent shutdown of the wells.”
Kayley Shoup with Citizens Caring for the Future based in Carlsbad in the southeast region of the state in the oil-rich Permian Basin said she also supports a permanent end to oil and gas extraction from New Mexico’s federal land.
She said the State has strong regulations, following a recent rulemaking to limit methane emissions completed by the Oil Conservation Division, but that enforcement is underfunded, and the federal government should step in.
“We have plenty of regulation here, but we have little to no enforcement,” Shoup said. “This really is a huge pollution problem that not only exacerbates climate change, but it hurts the health of frontline communities that are exposed to these emissions.”
A June 10 letter from a coalition of New Mexico environmental groups argued if federal oil and gas leasing would continue, that even with expanded use of renewable energy sources, global warming could still reach 1.5 degrees Celsius, the threshold set by the global community that could bring about catastrophe.
The letter was signed by the Western Environmental Law Center, Dine CARE, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity among others.
“It’s critical that President Biden follow through with his promise of bold climate action and just transition from fossil fuels,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians based in Santa Fe.
“We need a pause on selling public lands for fracking, but we need to build on this pause and take further action to rein in fossil fuel production and keep our oil, gas and coal in the ground.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.