Air Quality Bureau holds hearing over plants

James Fenton

FARMINGTON – The New Mexico Environment Department's Air Quality Bureau held the second of three meetings to take public comment on proposed changes to the state’s regulation of emissions from oil and gas wells and production facilities.

Air quality

Those emissions, which include a number of pollutants, can come from equipment startups, shutdowns and malfunctions. Officials said the changes are required to comply with the federal Clean Air Act. The changes would be included in the state implementation plan, or SIP, which is an agreement between federal and state authorities on how to handle those events.

State Air Quality Bureau planning chief Rita Bates said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered revisions to the 2008 state rules over excess atmospheric emissions by the oil and gas industry. The state was given an 18-month period, which ends Nov. 22, to comply.

The meeting was attended by eight oil and gas officials, and held at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park on Tuesday.

In light of recent court cases, the EPA decided the use of permit exceptions — called "affirmative defense" filings that operators file with the state after an emissions event — are not covered under the Clean Air Act.

So Bates and the bureau again are revising the rule that covers when oil and gas equipment breaks down or releases more than the permitted amount of pollutants during shutdowns or startups. In those cases, if operators feel the event was beyond their control, they can file "affirmative defense" paperwork to try to avoid a penalty.

"We approve only a small percentage. We really go through those carefully," Bates told the eight people in the room. "It's not a get-out-of-jail-free card. You have to make a really compelling demonstration for us to accept (the filing as legitimate)."

Despite the state rules, Bates said the EPA retains the right to "overfile" on an action if the federal agency deems a state action is insufficient. She also said she thought the federal agency's order to revise the rule was unnecessary.

"We didn't really think that we should have been subject to the SIP call because we have (effective) language in our rule already," Bates said. "I don't really know if (the EPA reads) our comments or not. It kind of feels like they didn't."

Tom Mullins, owner/operator of Synergy Operations LLC in Farmington, said he appreciated the bureau's consideration for the industry. Mullins pointed out how the oil and gas industry is under pressure from multiple new revised rules from several federal agencies at once.

"There seems to be a large effort on the part of the federal government creating additional hurdles  ... that impact what has historically been the due-process rights of the energy sector," Mullins said. "It's kind of like we're guilty until we're proven innocent ... I appreciate the effort here."

To comment on the draft SIP revisions, send an email to ssm.aqb@state.nm.us.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.