New Mexico needs to drop harmful exemptions from air pollution rules for oil and gas sites
Methane is a terribly harmful climate pollutant – pound for pound, it heats the climate over the next few decades more than eighty times more than carbon dioxide, and it’s currently responsible for about a quarter of the warming we are already experiencing, such as more severe droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires. The largest industrial methane polluter is the oil and gas industry, and recent measurements have showed that the Permian Basin in New Mexico and Texas is a hot spot, with huge and disproportionate amounts of methane pollution coming from sites across the basin. These sites emit more than just methane, too: other pollutants released alongside methane cause multiple health problems.
New Mexico’s Environment Department (NMED) is working to fulfill the promise of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Administration to put in place nationally-leading rules for the industry to protect New Mexicans from oil and gas air pollution and limit the climate damage caused by methane from this industry. Last year, the Department released a discussion draft of those rules. Unfortunately, they have huge holes: two provisions that together would exempt a huge portion of NM oil and gas sites from any meaningful requirements to reduce emissions.
How harmful are these exemptions? Consider this. In 2019 and 2020, NMED carried out helicopter flyover surveys of oil and gas sites in the Permian and San Juan Basins. The surveys identified hundreds of large emissions sources – sources large enough to be seen with an infrared camera from hundreds of feet away in a helicopter. Some of these sites had large, detectable sources in both 2019 and 2020. NMED published the locations and infrared camera video footage from these helicopter flyovers on an interactive methane map.
By analyzing permit data that NMED provided along with the videos on the map, we found that at least 57% of the sites with these large emissions will be exempt from the meaningful requirements under the draft NMED rules. (We describe the methodology below. We say “at least” 57%, because we are only able to examine whether sites qualify for one of the exemptions. Some of the remaining sites may qualify for the second exemption.)
You can see the kinds of pollution problems occurring at sites the NMED rule will exempt by watching the videos taken by the helicopter surveys.
Here (and above) is a leak at a compressor in 2019. Here’s a leak from a tank at the same site in 2020. Here’s a flare that is burning very poorly, leading to a cloud of unburned gas, in 2019. Here’s the same site with the same problem a year later.
There are hundreds of these videos, because hundreds of these sites are spewing out huge amounts of pollution, and under NMED’s draft rule, many will continue to do so, because those sites will be exempted from common-sense standards such as requiring operators to regularly use infrared camera to inspect their sites for these types of problems. There are over 51,000 oil and gas wells in New Mexico on tens of thousands of wellpads, but NMED believes that only 2,402 of those pads have enough possible emissions to warrant leak inspections and other measures to reduce emissions. (The videos show that NMED’s assumption that the rest of State’s oil and gas sites cannot have significant emissions is incorrect.)
The videos make clear that the exemptions in NMED’s draft rule will allow huge amounts of climate-polluting methane and other air pollutants to continue pouring into New Mexico’s air, endangering human health and the environment. We’re hoping that NMED fixes this problem when they move these rules forward this spring.
As mentioned above, the draft rules contain two exemptions. Here, we only analyze the impacts of one exemption, which would exempt sites with calculated potential emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOC) of less than 15 tons per year (tpy). For this analysis, we compared sites with identified emissions from the NMED map of flyover surveys and lists/maps of permits for oil and gas sites. NMED rules requires sites with calculated potential emissions over 10 tpy of VOC to file a notice of intent or obtain an air permit. We found that 57% of sites with visible emissions have neither a notice of intent nor an air permit on file, implying that these sites have calculated potential emissions below 10 tpy. Therefore, they would be exempt from the required measures under the NMED draft ozone precursor rule. (As we note above, some of the sites with visible emissions which with potential VOC emissions about 15 tpy may still be exempt from the required measures due to the second exemption.)