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AP New Mexico

Latest draft of New Mexico oil, gas rules stirs tension

ALBUQUERQUE – Advocates for the oil and gas industry and the environment are at odds over the latest draft of proposed regulations to tamp down on smog-causing pollution.

A New Mexico Environment Department panel will hear the agency’s proposed new rules, which some see as putting the state’s budget and hundreds of jobs at risk, at a hearing later this month, the Albuquerque Journal reports.

Don Schreiber, whose ranch home near Blanco encompasses both Rio Arriba and San Juan counties, has been following and documenting the pollution issue surrounding regional oil and gas drilling for nearly two decades. He has lobbied for strict industry emissions regulations at the state and federal level.

“Oil companies can choose to capture methane without a regulation,” Schreiber said. “It’s common sense. But it’s also about the bottom line.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's executive order on climate change calls for state environmental regulators to come up with ways to cut emissions from the gas and oil industries.

Environmentalists like Schreiber think the tentative new regulations may not go far enough. He thinks they still have exceptions for emissions when it comes to re-drilling or completing wells.

“This is a brittle landscape,” Schreiber said. “I can go to well locations that have been closed for 15 years, and I can tell you exactly where it was. It just doesn’t heal.”

Under the proposal, professional engineers would review and validate emissions data calculated by oil and gas operators. There would also be an increase in inspections of equipment for leaks and other issues.

“We can’t wait for our ozone levels to get worse,” state Environment Secretary James Kenney said. “We have an unlevel playing field between industry and the government right now.”

The state department estimates the rules would slash ozone-forming pollutants by about 129,000 tons annually, and also reduce about 425,000 tons of methane.

JoAnna Strother, the American Lung Association’s senior advocacy director, said the state of the air quality in the region has to change. The group gave failing grades to five New Mexico counties for ozone pollution.

“We need to see air quality standards get tightened up so we really can be protected,” Strother said. “We still have a ways to go before we make sure we’re breathing cleaner, healthier air.”

New Mexico's oil and gas companies have already expressed reservations through written feedback. Ryan Davis, the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico president and operations manager of Merrion Oil & Gas Corp. in Farmington, said the rule doesn't seem fairly balanced if you're a smaller operator.

“The requirement of having certification by a qualified professional engineer is not appropriate and creates an unnecessary burden to operators,” Davis wrote as part of the Petroleum Association’s 200-page testimony and recommendations. He thinks it would be fine to let operator's in-house engineers certify data.

Davis also has objected to phasing out certain pneumatic control devices because replacing equipment like that would be a hefty price tag for some operators.

If the new rules were to pass, they could go into effect by March.