New Mexico, the third largest oil producer in the United States, has moved to reduce methane pollution from the oil and gas industry, moving closer to the leadership of neighboring Colorado. Methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change and also harms human health.
With the United States among the world’s biggest methane polluters and the Biden administration promising tougher national rules, Colorado and New Mexico have set a bar for other states to follow.
For decades, the oil and gas industry has freely discharged the colorless pollutant from tens of thousands of wells as a cost saving measure. Then, in March, New Mexico banned the unnecessary venting and flaring of natural gas, which is made up almost entirely of methane. New Mexico is only the third state, after Colorado and Alaska, to ban this practice.
Last May, New Mexico also proposed a final rule to stop the leakage of methane from the state’s entire oil and gas supply chain, which includes part of the gigantic Permian Basin that it shares with Texas. The leak occurs at well pads, pipelines, compressors, storage facilities and more.
It’s a system-wide problem that generates plumes of methane large enough to be detected from space.
The proposed leak rule, now subject to public comment, improves on a December draft that had large loopholes. When finalized, it will require regular inspection and repair of leaking equipment, which today is largely unmitigated as another cost-cutting measure for the industry.
The state’s effort means New Mexico is catching up with Colorado. In 2014, Colorado became the first state to regulate methane and twice strengthened its rule of origin. Colorado has also modernized the mission of its oil and gas regulator to include protecting public health. And he’s reworking oil and gas bonding requirements so taxpayers aren’t burdened with plugging leaky “orphan wells” abandoned by producers.
Colorado’s rules served as a model for the first national methane regulations implemented under President Obama in 2016. Sadly, the Trump administration dismantled those rules.
Controlling methane is a climate imperative. Because gas has 80 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide, it is a powerful driver of climate change. NASA says it has fueled a whopping 25% of the man-made global warming that is now increasingly jeopardizing water, agriculture and recreation in the West.
Research also shows that methane enters the atmosphere from sources such as wetlands or thawing permafrost. In the latter, the warming linked to methane generates more methane. It’s the disturbing type of feedback loop that global warming alarmists have warned us about for decades.
But the good news is that methane only survives in the atmosphere for about 10 years, unlike the centuries-old lifespan of carbon dioxide. Therefore, the current methane rules could produce quick returns on climate change as the world grapples with the more difficult carbon dioxide problem.
But methane and associated pollutants also contribute to harmful ground-level ozone, which is linked to premature births, respiratory illnesses and other illnesses. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has made this part of her campaign for regulation, pointing out that poor air quality disproportionately harms poor communities.
This concern has helped bolster support from Indigenous groups and others, outweighing fears that the new regulations would hurt drilling royalties, which provide more than a third of New Mexico’s revenue for education, health and other services.
Part of the New Mexico governor’s strategy to gain support for methane control focused on fiscal responsibility. Venting, flaring, and leaking – all monumental wasteful practices – send about $ 43 million in potential state revenue each year into the thin air of New Mexico.
Nationally, President Biden has campaigned for the reinstatement of federal methane regulations canceled under Trump. Biden issued executive orders on day one in office that set a September target to come up with a new strategy. Developing new federal rules should take years, but New Mexico and Colorado are now good examples. By applying rules to new and existing oil and gas infrastructure, they go beyond Obama’s original regulations, which only concerned new permits.
Today, the western states, along with heavy oil producers in Texas and North Dakota, offer only a patchwork of tax incentives and voluntary targets. Limited rules, however, often tilt in the industry’s favor. Now, with fossil fuel production resuming and global temperatures rising, New Mexico and Colorado are showing that stricter regulations are the way to go.
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sparking a lively conversation about the American West. He writes from Alaska.