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Commentary: Eliminate the loopholes in state's proposed methane rules


Don Schreiber  |  Farmington Daily Times

As a rancher I know that a fence with holes won’t work for long to keep your cattle in.

The same goes for environmental rules. You can create the best regulations in the world, but if you leave big, gaping holes that don’t apply to most pollution sources, they aren’t going to get the job done.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it appears the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has done with their draft methane rules. The draft released in July has some good requirements that, if applied to every company, in every county, would go a long way to limit the methane pollution that New Mexico’s oil and gas industry creates. However, as currently drafted, the rule also includes huge, sweeping loopholes that would mean the vast majority of oil and gas wells in New Mexico would be exempt from effective regulation.

I live on a ranch in the San Juan Basin where our house is surrounded by hundreds of wells. I took a look and 70 percent of the wells within a one mile radius of the house would be exempt from the NMED rules because they fall into the production and pollution loopholes the department has proposed. And these wells don’t belong to some small mom and pop outfit with no resources, they belong to Hilcorp, a Houston-based energy giant and the largest natural gas producer in New Mexico.

And the story gets worse as you look at the impact of these exemptions across the

Basin and statewide. According to calculations from the Environmental Defense Fund, upwards of 95 percent of New Mexico’s oil and gas wells would be exempt from NMED’s methane rules.

Letting nine out of 10 oil and gas wells across New Mexico continue to emit methane and volatile organic compounds, like cancer causing benzene, just isn’t something we can live with.

Literally.

The American Lung Association is already giving failing grades to oil and gas counties like ours; we’re home to some of the worst ozone and methane pollution in the nation.

New Mexico is a rural state and families like mine are at increased risk for respiratory diseases like asthma and emphysema.

Those are the very diseases that allow COVID-19 to strike hardest at our most vulnerable citizens. No population is more at risk from coronavirus right now than my neighbors on the Navajo Nation, home to the worst outbreak in America. As currently drafted, these rules won’t be adequate to create the limits on pollution that are sorely needed to protect their health and safety, or my family’s.

New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division (OCD) also released draft rules last week designed to help limit methane waste from venting and flaring at oil and gas wells, both during drilling and production. That’s great progress for a department that has hardly changed the rules since 1936, but the OCD rules are under intense scrutiny for allowing outdated oilfield practices to continue, like failing to require the capture of methane when wells are completed!

Let’s not forget that methane vented, leaked or flared is wasted energy and revenue since methane is the primary component of natural gas. In fact, taxpayers lose out on upwards of $40 million in royalty and tax revenue. For a state struggling to fund basic services, like education, that’s just not fair.

I’m encouraged that on Aug. 6, NMED and OCD extended the public input period for another 30 days to better address the public outcry against these draft rule loopholes and outdated drilling and production practices.

Governor Lujan Grisham deserves full credit for her tireless efforts to protect the health of New Mexicans by combatting COVID-19 and pledging to enact nationally leading methane rules, and I thank her for her leadership on both fronts.

Ultimately, however, it will take Secretary Jim Kenney’s leadership to close those big loopholes in NMED’s draft rules, and Secretary Sara Cottrell Propst’s leadership to bring OCD’s draft rules up to the Governor’s promise to have the  best methane rules in the country.

Don Schreiber is a rancher in Gobernator and was appointed as a member of the governor's Methane Advisory Panel.