Environmental groups joined the defense in court of New Mexico’s recently imposed oil and gas emission controls after the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico (IPANM) sued the state earlier this year, alleging the new rules go too far in regulating air pollution from the industry and result in overly burdensome costs of compliance.
Tannis Fox, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center which filed a motion to intervene in the case, said high levels of air pollution throughout New Mexico’s oil and gas regions warranted “strong” state regulations.
She said the industry had input and largely supports the rules, drafted through multiple public hearings and meetings between State officials and energy companies over the last two years.
“When all of New Mexico’s major oil and gas producing counties, including Eddy, Lea and San Juan, are receiving failing grades for ozone pollution, it should be a wake-up call that strong state regulations tackling air pollution from the oil and gas industry are urgently needed,” Fox said.
“IPANM is out of step with the rest of the industry and is the only industry party among many that participated in the rulemaking that has appealed the rule.”
New Mexico’s oil and gas industry accounts for about a third of the State’s budget each year, and this year was credited for a more-than $2 billion funding surplus.
The IPANM, which says it represents small producers throughout the state, said that lead economic driver could be threatened by the added regulations.
The rules in question increase leak detection, reporting and repair requirement on oil and gas production in New Mexico counties reported to have ground-level ozone levels exceeding 95 percent of the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) of 70 parts per billion (ppb).
Under New Mexico state law, exceeding that threshold required regulators to devise new rules to lower the concentration of ozone in the air.
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Ozone is formed by air pollutants known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), from oil and gas operations or other sources like vehicle tailpipes, interact with sunlight, and it can cause cancers and other respiratory illness through long-term exposure.
In its lawsuit filed Aug. 5, the Association said the rules, devised by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and set as policy by the Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) by vote, unfairly imposed the rules on two counties: Chaves and Rio Arriba which the suit argued do not meet the 95 percent threshold of the NAAQS.
Chaves and Rio Arriba, while not exceeding the threshold, are adjacent to counties in the southeast and northwest, respectively, that do exceed the NAAQS and are known for heavy oil and gas development in the Permian and San Juan basins.
The lawsuit also challenged the NMED’s definition of “small business” which it would use to apply lower standards to smaller operators.
A small business was unfairly defined by its revenue, the lawsuit argued, which would tie the regulations to “a constantly fluctuating market price of oil and gas.”
The suit also argued against provisions in the rules that would enact tougher regulations on oil and gas operations near homes, and that the rules violated a section of state law that standards be “no more stringent than necessary” to comply with the NAAQS.
Jon Goldstein, director of regulatory and legislative affairs with the Environmental Defense Fund, also listed as an intervenor in the case, said air quality requirements should be tougher for operations closer to residential communities to protect public safety.
“The legal wrangling and foot dragging from IPANM is a direct threat to the health of families in the Permian and San Juan Basins because the appeal targets common sense protections for those living closest to well sites in frontline communities,” he said.
“This misguided appeal seeks to eliminate requirements for oil and gas operators to conduct more frequent inspections to find and fix leaks in proximity to homes, schools and businesses.”
In a statement issued when the appeal was filed, IPANM President Jim Winchester said the rules would impede oil and gas operations and thus the economy of New Mexico while having little effect, he said, on pollution.
He declined to comment further on the ongoing case.
“While IPANM does support a fair and balanced Ozone Precursor regulation, we have no choice but to appeal this version of the rule that will force operators to plug still-productive wells and will inflict economic hardship on New Mexicans with little to no gain for the environment,” Winchester said in the statement.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, email@example.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
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