NMED: Environment must be guarded during oil boom in Carlsbad area
Weeks after he was appointed to the position, Cabinet Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department James Kenney said regulations on the oil and gas industry are going to change.
While he didn’t specify any specific alterations to state law or practice during a Monday meeting with members of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce in Santa Fe, Kenney described a philosophy of greater protections for the environment and called on oil and gas companies to provide more public outreach to host communities.
The most important concept to guide NMED under the administration of newly-elected Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Kenney said, was science.
“I think it’s important that this department lead with science. Science isn’t a bad word. It’s a good word,” he said. “I’m big on science and innovation coming together. We need to make sure we have the right people at the table at the right times.
“We’re not always going to agree on everything, especially when it comes to oil and gas issues.”
While regulating the oil and gas industry at the state level, Kenney said one of NMED’s most important roles is to protect the environment.
But more important than complying with the State’s permitting process, he said, was the “social license” companies earn to operate in a community.
“Our job is to make sure the environment is protected. We need to monitor permits, and we’re going to make sure we approach those permits with science,” he said. “The social license to operate in communities is of even greater value. That license is gained by being good neighbors and giving back to the community.”
The two main environmental issues of concern pointed about Kenney during the meeting were methane release and produced water.
He proposed greater scrutiny of oil and gas companies regarding the release of methane and other volatile organic compounds from oil and gas facilities.
“We have a growing ozone issue. Rather than wait until it becomes a significant ozone issue, there’s probably some steps New Mexico could take to ensure those air quality issues don’t get worse,” he said. “There’s a lot of things in that area that could be thought about. We’re going to be thinking about that more.”
Kenney also advocated for finding new ways of recycling produced water instead of using disposal wells.
“I think we can all agree that more water in New Mexico is a good thing,” he said. “We don’t need to fight about that.”
Former Eddy County Commissioner Jack Volpato, who also sits on the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force, said he supported recycling the produced water, and finding a new use other than disposal.
“I think the deep well disposition is clearly not ideal,” Volpato said. “If we could find a new use for that, that would be great and we would support it.”
WIPP in need of 'strategic planning'
Chamber members also questioned Kenney on the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, and a recent permit modification approved by NMED in the weeks before the administration shifted that altered the way the volume of waste emplaced at the facility was tracked.
With the past method of volume tracking, WIPP was reported as about half full.
With the modification in place, it was only at about a third capacity.
The controversial measure was met with scorn from environmentalists who questioned the legality of increasing WIPP’s capacity without Congressional approval, while supporters said it was simply a matter of not counting air as waste.
Kenney said such issues and disagreements could be mitigated with “strategic planning” between the State and WIPP officials.
“A lot of times, we don’t know what’s coming into NMED until it arrives. Strategic planning for the WIPP is something that would benefit them and us. Those items happen to be high controversy. They’re areas that require a lot of planning, and stakeholder interaction,” Kenney said.
“We process permits and are protecting the environment as we do so. We want to make sure that as we’re thinking about what’s going to happen in the next year or so, we need milestones for that community involvement.”
Volpato defended WIPP and Nuclear Waste Partnership – the contractor hired by the U.S. Department of Energy to operate WIPP’s day-to-day operations – as entities in the Carlsbad area that engage with the public both socially and educationally.
He said the Carlsbad community supports the permit modification, as environmental groups recently began the appeal process to attempt to reverse the policy change and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall called on the State to reconsider.
“We understand what that permit mod was for. We support the permit mod as approved. WIPP has done a fantastic job for community outreach and education and letting us know what’s going down there,” Volpato said.
“When it comes to this and counting the waste, it makes sense and its very scientific. They go out of their way to explain and address our concerns.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.