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New Mexico sets hearing date to finalize new oil and gas methane rules

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

New Mexico oil and gas regulators set a date to codify new regulations on methane and natural gas emissions and expected testimony early next year could last at least a week.

In a Wednesday meeting of the Oil Conservation Commission (OCC), the commission agreed to hold a public meeting on Jan. 4 to enact regulations on emissions by oil and gas operations proposed by the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) and its Oil Conservation Division (OCD) – EMNRD’s primary compliance arm.

Chief among the additions to state law in the proposed rulemaking, which was conducted over the last year through numerous public hearings and engagement periods, was a requirement that oil and gas facilities to capture 98 percent of natural gas emissions by 2026.

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Failure to comply with the regulations, if they were approved by the OCC and put into OCD’s regulations, could result in fines, civil action or denial of future permits by state regulators.

The final hearing on the rules was to be held virtually and expected to last several days, with public testimony offered at the start and end of each day of the hearing.

Eric Ames, counsel for the OCD said the rules were the result of “extensive” work by the agency and were in pursuit of objectives set by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham upon assuming office in 2019 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the impacts of climate change.

Read More:Report: Oil and gas leads New Mexico in greenhouse gas emissions, renewable sector growing

In January 2019, the newly-elected governor signed an executive order that called on state agencies to find ways to reduce their impact on climate change while creating New Mexico’s Climate Change Task Force and aligning the state with the Paris Climate Accord.

“These proposed rules are the result of an extensive public process initiated by gov. Lujan Grisham. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas,” Ames said. “We met with industry trade groups and representatives from environmental organization. These are the rules that we are proposing to the commission today.”

To develop the proposed rules, the state convened its Methane Advisory Panel (MAP) made up of stakeholders, industry leaders and environmental organization for months, released the rules to the public, collected public comments and intended to allow for more public comments ahead of the final hearing in January.

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“I would say that this is most extensive public process that I can recall being involved in in my legal career,” Ames said.

Michael Feldewert, counsel for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association objected to the OCD using a panel for the hearing where each member would testify before any questions could be asked.

He said the extensive and complex nature of the topic would be better served if questions could instead be asked of those testifying as they each completed their statements.

Keep reading:New Mexico eyeing stricter regulations, more fines on oil and gas spills

Feldewert’s motion was upheld by the commission.

“Everyone agrees this is going to be weeks of testimony ns a very complex manner. The way it stands now, you’re going to have to wait to ask questions until all the witnesses have spoken. I don’t see why that’s efficient. The best time to ask questions is when you can remember what the witness just said,” he said.

“At least allow the parties to question the witnesses after they’ve testified. Don’t impinge upon a party’s right to question a witness after they’ve testified when everybody can hear what the heck they just said.”

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The proposed regulations face backlash from some environmental groups who worried their defined “flexibility” for low-performing or “stripper” wells would exempt too many facilities from the rules for them to be effective.

Per OCD’s proposal, stripper wells – which are defined by EMNRD as producing less than 10 barrels of oil per day or 60,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day, could be granted flexibility on requirements for inspections or retrofitting of gas capture technology.

During August testimony on the rulemaking, Wendy Atcitty with Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (CARE) said the flexibility could exempt 95 percent of wells in New Mexico.

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The provisions offering flexibility to stripper wells remained in the proposed rules.

“We need to fix the oversight of the methane of the draft rules in leak detection and repair requirements,” Atcitty said.

In a separate hearing on Wednesday, the Commission hearing on April 1 to consider a petition by WildEarth Guardians to establish a rulemaking requiring fines be issued to operators who report spills of crude oil, natural gas, produced water and other oilfield waste.

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As the regulations stand, an operator must report a spill and then take steps to remediate the incident or face fines and civil action from the state.

WildEarth Guardians’ proposal would enact immediate fines when a spill is reported in addition to future penalties and clean up costs.

Daniel Timmons, an attorney for WildEarth Guardians said the current rules were inadequate in reducing spills and protecting the environment.  

“The routine nature of spills across New Mexico proves that these rules are not good enough to protect the environment,” he said. “This rulemaking is intended to make it clear that spilling oilfield waste is prohibited. It’s time for the state to say enough is enough.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.