Nathalie Eddy of Earthworks uses an infrared camera to record emissions from a series of tanks operated by BTA Oil Producers as she monitors wells for emissions in the Permian Basin south of Lovington, N.M. (Photo by Jerry Redfern / Capital & Main)
December saw dramatic increases in the quantity of natural gas flared and vented by oil and gas operators in New Mexico compared to the previous month, according to new monthly statistics reported to the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division (OCD).
The amounts are far and away the largest in the monthly reports since the state enacted new venting and flaring restrictions and reporting requirements in 2021 ,and show a 39% monthly increase in flared gas and a 161% monthly increase in natural gas vented straight to the atmosphere in December.
According to the EPA’s greenhouse gas calculator, those releases were equivalent to the CO2 emissions of 8,600 gasoline-powered cars driven for a year.
Sidney Hill, public information officer at OCD’s parent agency, the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), said that a preliminary review of the reports indicates the venting and flaring in the Permian Basin was caused “primarily by abnormal weather-related incidents such as freezes and downed equipment.”
New Mexico’s Methane Waster Rule, as it’s commonly called, went into effect in 2021 as part of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s plans to dramatically reduce the state’s climate-warming carbon emissions. The primary aim behind the rule is to reduce production losses of natural gas (which is primarily methane) to less than 2% by 2026.
To achieve that goal, the rule forbids all routine venting and flaring — restricting it instead to brief, unforeseeable emergencies. Hill said that December’s venting and flaring “is not considered routine and likely would be permissible under our rule.”
Tom Singer, senior policy adviser at the Western Environmental Law Center, was part of the public committee that helped draft the Methane Waste Rule — a committee made up of representatives of both environmental groups and oil and gas producers. He said that the rule clearly bans venting and flaring, and he questions whether such dramatic increases could really be the result of short, emergency releases. “Those percentage increases,” he said, “are horrifying.”
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Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program at WildEarth Guardians, agreed. He calls it “shocking” that wintertime freezing weather could be considered an unforeseeable emergency and, therefore, could be used as an acceptable excuse for venting and flaring under the rule.
“News flash: Winter happens in the Permian Basin every year,” he said.
“OCD understands that it gets cold in the Permian every year,” Hill said. “Operator reports from December indicate the occurrence of atypical freeze events, which may have been caused by colder than normal winter conditions.”
December was not the first time that operators in the Permian Basin dealt with unusually cold weather. In 2021, an even more powerful storm froze natural gas production lines across the Basin, leaving millions without power in Texas for days. While much colder than the usual winter weather — and colder than December’s storm — the 2021 event alerted oil and gas producers to weak links in production chains and prompted regulation-averse Texas to require oil and gas operators to prepare equipment for extreme weather.
That has not happened in New Mexico. “The OCD does not have regulations regarding a minimum operating temperature,” Hill said.
“Unfortunately, freezes are hard to foresee,” he said, and it’s hard to predict which equipment will be affected or how. “This unpredictability is the reason the venting likely increased more than the flaring.”
Singer said that companies have other options besides flaring when there are problems in the system and “they definitely have options beyond venting.”
Methane, the main ingredient of natural gas, is more than 80 times more effective at trapping greenhouse heat than CO2 during its first 20 years in the atmosphere, making venting much more damaging to the long-term health of the planet than flaring, which breaks down methane into less potent CO2 (and other pollutants). Options include throttling back on production or even “shutting in” a well — essentially stopping the well temporarily.
Singer said that during the Methane Waste Rule drafting process, producers said “the sky will fall if you shut in a well.” But he points to the thousands of wells that producers shut in when OCD offered a program to keep oil and gas in the ground when the energy market cratered in the early days of the COVID-19 epidemic. More than 12% of operational wells eventually ended up in the program. And Exxon now says it is installing equipment on its Permian wells to quickly shut them down remotely.
Furthermore, the Methane Waste Rule provides a list of nine other possibilities besides venting or flaring if operators can’t transfer 100% of produced gas into a pipeline, including local power generation, compression and storage, or reinjection.
It’s not clear if OCD, New Mexico’s primary oil and gas enforcement agency, will more closely examine the operator reports to see if something other than venting and flaring could have been done. Hill said, “OCD did not identify any anomalies within the data suggesting a noncompliance, while OCD’s understanding was that the weather was colder than normal.”
There’s also a lack of enforcement staff. OCD’s director and deputy director both left at the end of 2022 after implementing historic changes — including the Methane Waste Rule — at the agency. One of the previous director’s primary, unmet funding goals was to increase the staff that enforces and prosecutes rules violations.
Currently, EMNRD’s chief lawyer, Dylan Fuge, is acting OCD director, but the lack of permanent leadership may prove problematic both for rules enforcement concerns such as the December emissions and for future funding.
In the current legislative session, OCD again faces a funding battle for more enforcement personnel and support staff to monitor and prosecute violations in the state’s oil and gas industry, including illegal venting and flaring.
In 2022, after implementing the Methane Waste Rule, OCD asked legislators for more personnel to enforce that rule as well as others already on the books. The New Mexico Legislature denied the request despite a record-breaking budget fueled by oil and gas revenues.
And the Legislature’s initial budget proposal in this year’s session again lacks money for more enforcement personnel at OCD, despite yet another record-breaking budget fueled by oil and gas.
Lack of enforcement from state agencies led Nichols and WildEarth Guardians to use a citizens’ suit provision within the federal Clean Air Act to sue the multinational Oxy USA for regularly exceeding permitted emission limits of lung-damaging air pollutants at an oil and gas pumping and compressor station northeast of Carlsbad, N.M.
Both sides and a judge finalized a consent decree earlier this month that led to more than $5 million in fines and upgrades to OXY operations across the Permian Basin.
Nichols said the December venting and flaring “is exactly what we dealt with with Oxy in our Clean Air Act enforcement case.”
“It’s simply more of the same in the Permian, despite all the talk of change,” he said.
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