State methane rules essential given federal approach | Editorials

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It’s not as though all who care about the air we breathe did not know it was coming. Since being elected, President Donald Trump has made it clear he wanted fewer regulations to stop pollution of the air, land and water. With time running out on his first term, his agencies are moving ever more rapidly to eliminate protections that have been in place for decades.

The latest announcement came this week, with news that the Environmental Protection Agency would roll back Obama-era methane rules, a move that is particularly bad for Western states such as New Mexico. The rules should be made public by the end of the week.

In 2018, when the Trump administration announced it wanted weaker rules on methane emissions, we wrote, “It’s impossible to know just how much damage will be done to the land, water and air over the next few years, all in the name of deregulation, improving the business climate or creating jobs. But make no mistake, damage is being done.”

To stop the damage will take a different president and a different direction on environmental policy. For the Trump administration, regulation is just a roadblock to doing business rather than a necessary protection because of companies that refuse to do what’s right without oversight.

Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico particularly criticized the timing of the rule announcement: “The Trump EPA is eliminating commonsense rules that reduce toxic air pollution, limit the waste of natural resources, and slow the existential threat of climate change. This time, they are doing so in the middle of a pandemic that is devastating communities that have suffered disproportionate amounts of environmental pollution for decades.”

Methane is a greenhouse gas, a contributor to the warming of global temperatures, the climate change that is putting the future of the human race in jeopardy. Letting it leak into the atmosphere not only affects the climate; it makes people who live near drilling operations sick. It’s a waste of a resource, too, since by capturing methane, companies can sell it rather than simply allowing pollution to occur.

Because of Udall’s work in the Senate, at least pipeline operators will be held responsible for detecting and fixing methane leaks through pipeline safety legislation that passed the Senate last week. Should it pass and be signed into law, this would provide one important safeguard, considering the EPA’s new methane rule apparently will eliminate federal requirements that oil and gas companies must install technology to find and fix methane leaks from wells, pipelines and storage sites.

The federal government’s abdication of responsibility makes work at the state level even more important. New Mexico is in the process of drafting new rules to control methane pollution. Here, oil and gas companies are estimated to waste annually some $275 million worth of natural gas through venting, flaring and leaks. That costs the state approximately $40 million in royalty and tax revenue.

The draft rules would require the oil and gas industry to decrease methane venting and flaring by a cumulative 98 percent through the end of 2026 — an aggressive and necessary approach. However, climate activists remain concerned that the proposal does allow loopholes for companies, all the more reason to weigh in during the public comment period that ends Aug. 20.

At the federal level, changes to protect the air will happen when a new administration takes office. In New Mexico, we have the opportunity to decrease methane pollution right now by establishing some of the best regulations in the country. It’s one New Mexico must seize.



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