Health

New Mexico presents rule to reduce fossil fuel pollutants

State regulators on Monday presented a proposed rule to curb fossil fuel emissions that cause ground-level ozone, a pollutant that can be harmful to public health and the environment.

Regulators, industry representatives and residents began discussions — which could go as long as two weeks — on the proposed “ozone precursor rule” the state Environment Department has crafted to reduce common pollutants wafting from oil fields, mainly in the Permian and San Juan basins.

Attorneys, technicians and other analysts spent much of the day presenting data and haggling before the state Environmental Improvement Board over how stringent the regulations should be to curtail pollution known to impair breathing and, in higher doses, damage lungs.

State and federal officials said their monitoring devices show nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds — known as VOCs — which form ozone, have increased at oil and gas sites in recent years and must be reduced. Environmentalists agreed.

“These pollutants are harmful to human health,” said Charles de Saillan, staff attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “One of the VOCs emitted from oil and gas is benzene, a known human carcinogen.”

Decreasing VOCs would help curb the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that accelerates climate change, de Saillan said.

Climate researchers estimate methane is 80 times more powerful in warming the Earth over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide.

The new rule initially would cover Chaves, Doña Ana, Eddy, Lea, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, San Juan and Valencia counties.

It’s mainly aimed at counties where emissions reach at least 90 percent of the federal ambient air quality standard.

A key part of the rule would be how the amount of emissions from wells would trigger inspections.

A yearly inspection would be required for less than 2 tons; semiannual for 2 to 5 tons; and quarterly for more than 5 tons.

Having to conduct more than a one-time inspection on the lowest-emitting wells is a sore point for the industry, which contends it’s onerous for small operators.

That grievance wasn’t specifically aired by oil and gas representatives Monday, but they made clear they thought much of the regulation is uncalled for.

They challenged the methodology the state used to draft the provisions, such as stricter oversight on low-producing wells.

They also questioned how effective it will be in cutting ozone relative to its cost.

“This is a very expensive [rule] compared to many that come before this board,” said John Hiser, an attorney representing the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. “The other thing that … is important about this rule is it has somewhat limited impact on those ozone levels. It’s not a silver bullet that’s going to solve all of New Mexico’s ozone attainment issues.”

The state’s own modeling shows the rule would reduce ozone by less than 1 part per billion on average in the northwest and 0.2 parts per billion in the southeast, Hiser said, referring to the two oil-rich basins.

But regulators estimate the rule will reduce the precursors by an estimated 260 million pounds a year. It also would cut methane pollution by an estimated 851 million pounds yearly.

Eliminating that amount of ozone is the equivalent of taking 8 million cars off the road each year, they estimate.

A federal official said monitoring shows the pollutants drifting into Carlsbad Caverns National Park from oil fields in the Permian.

“I think the evidence is fairly clear that there’s exceedance of the ozone standard there, and part of the solution is looking at the oil and gas emissions in that area,” said John Vimont of the National Park Service’s Air Resources Division.

Kayley Shoup of Citizens Caring for the Future said she used to believe the government was protecting her and other Carlsbad-area residents from toxic pollution, such as ozone, but then discovered oversight was lax.

“Because of the abysmal lack of enforcement in the Permian, we must have stronger rules such as these being proposed today,” Shoup said. “Rules that require things like frequent inspections, especially at sites near schools and neighborhoods. They are currently our only line of defense against methane and VOC pollution.”

Attorney Louis Rose, representing the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, said in the oil-producing areas, ozone should be cut by focusing on decreasing nitrogen oxide and not VOCs.

This plan is going overboard in trying to slash VOCs, which have a minimal contribution in forming ozone, Rose said. Because VOCs dovetail with methane, it’s an oblique way to regulate methane, he added.

“We believe [VOCs] do not justify the degree of controls that the department is proposing on VOC emissions,” Rose said. “This is not a methane rule. Any considerations by this board on methane reductions … we believe is in error and would be in violation of this statute.”

One state regulator argued that clamping down on methane along with ozone is vital for communities’ well-being.

This methane rule correlates with the state Oil Conservation Division passing rules in March that limit natural gas venting and flaring, said Sandra Ely, director of the state Environmental Protection Division.

Together, they will curb ozone and greenhouse gases, better protect public health and be a model for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s methane rules, Ely said. The fossil fuel industry accounts for 53 percent of the state’s greenhouse gases, she added.

If the state doesn’t take action, she said, the federal government will — and that would increase the industry’s regulatory burdens and costs much more.

“Elevated levels of ozone pollution not only put the public’s health at risk by breathing unhealthy air, but could result in EPA stepping in to mandate that the state implement federal requirements to reduce ozone pollution,” Ely said.

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