By: Chela Garcia
New Mexico’s Permian Basin, located in the southeastern part of the state, is one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions for oil and gas development. However, it’s also on its way to becoming the most wasteful, too, which not only hits New Mexico taxpayers’ wallets, but also jeopardizes their health.
In 2016, the Bureau of Land Management adopted its Methane Rule to help curb this waste by applying common sense regulations when it comes to repairing leaking equipment and capturing natural gas rather than releasing it into the air or burning it off. For a state like New Mexico, which has the most federally leased land in the country and the highest methane emissions from those lands, the rule established balance between production, and not further degrading air and quality of life for its residents.
Yet, this fall, the Department of Interior gutted the 2016 rule, rolling back its most important protections for the American people by relying on 30-year-old regulations. This was done despite a failed attempt to rescind the rule through the Republican-controlled Senate, half a million Americans voicing opposition to the proposed rollback, and seven out of 10 Westerners, including a majority of Republicans, supporting strong BLM methane regulations.
The necessity of the rule is especially significant given that New Mexico’s current methane regulations rank worst when compared to seven other high-producing Western states, according to a new Wilderness Society report. New Mexico has zero requirements that meet or exceed any laid out in the 2016 BLM Methane Rule, leaving significant sources of methane waste currently unregulated.
Without the rule, New Mexico could expect more of the same. From 2009 to 2013, flared gas rose more than 2,000 percent in the state. Over $322 million in natural gas has been vented, flared or leaked on federal lands in New Mexico over the past decade, costing the state about $27 million in tax and royalty revenues.
What’s worse, though, is what this means for the health of New Mexicans. When natural gas, primarily in the form of methane, is released into the air, so, too, are harmful pollutants such as benzene, which are linked to cancer, and other ozone-forming pollutants that can trigger asthma attacks. The BLM methane rule helped fight the release of harmful pollutants into the air, which has a greater impact on Latino communities.
While more than half of the U.S. population is living in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone, Hispanics are 51 percent more likely to live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone than are non-Hispanic whites. Latinos are disproportionately affected by the health impacts of oil and gas development – in fact, 1.81 million Latinos live within a half mile of existing facilities. The National Hispanic Medical Association and LULAC report, “Latino Communities At Risk: The Impact of Air Pollution from the Oil and Gas Industry,” found that many Latino communities face an elevated risk of cancer due to toxic air emissions from oil and gas development.
Both Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard called for state-level restrictions on methane emissions in their election campaigns last year. They should be commended for embracing our moral obligation to protect the health of communities through cleaner energy production.
States and the federal government must step up and address these issues to protect taxpayers, public health and the environment. Relying on existing state-level requirements will result in a patchwork approach to federal oil and gas regulation, as states have wildly different approaches to managing natural gas. Most importantly, we need a comprehensive federal rule that applies to all oil and gas development on public lands in order to minimize waste and reduce the impacts of methane emissions on communities.