New Mexico Has a Methane Cloud Visible by Satellite. It Also Has Bold Climate Plans.

As greenhouse gasses fill the sky, a progressive governor and worried residents take on oil and gas—the state’s most powerful industry.

Flaring in the Permian Basin oil fields in Eddy County, New Mexico

August temperatures hovered in the 90s. But emotions ran even hotter inside the Walter Gerrells Performing Arts Center in Carlsbad, New Mexico, as a tense crowd wrangled over methane.

It was a timely topic; soon after taking office in January, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham had signed an executive order mandating 45 percent statewide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The measure also required the state’s booming oil and gas business to vastly reduce methane leakage at its facilities. Not only is methane a potent greenhouse gas, it’s also a natural resource that the state can tax.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, swiftly pushed back, arguing that new regulations would cost jobs and tax revenues. Their opposition to Lujan Grisham’s climate policies only grew after she signed legislation in March requiring New Mexico utilities to transition to zero-carbon energy by 2045.

In New Mexico, one of America’s poorest states, taking on climate change requires also taking on its most prosperous industry. Methane regulation has become symbolic of that fight, made even more bitter by the Trump administration’s recent rollback of Obama-era restrictions on methane emissions.

The Carlsbad meeting was among several held across New Mexico to give the public a chance to be heard. Speakers rose to explain why they supported or opposed a crackdown on an industry that leaks more than a million metric tons of methane into the New Mexico air every year (equivalent to the annual carbon pollution from 22 coal-fired power plants), through its routine processes for extracting and storing natural gas and burning it off as excess. Republican state representative Cathrynn Brown, whose district is thick with oil and gas wells, was inclined to give the polluters a pass. “There are a lot of people who like to badmouth the oil and gas industry,” she said. “But I know this is the industry that pays for what we do in state government. If we didn’t have this industry, we’d be in a world of hurt.”

Penny Aucoin, who attributes her 17-year-old son’s chronic nosebleeds to oil wells near their house, speaks during a public meeting on methane regulations in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Credit: Steven St. John/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Others decried the harassment of regulation supporters. “Members of my congregation have been personally threatened and intimidated for simply asking questions about the safety of their families,” said Rev. David Rogers of Carlsbad’s First Christian Church. “They live in some of the more toxic areas of methane release in this county. And some to whom I have spoken have been afraid to even be seen at meetings such as these, because they have been intimidated by employers, neighbors, friends, and family to try to keep their voices silent.”

The Costs of Inaction

The minister’s worried congregants are not alone. Across the state, approximately 140,000 people reside within a half mile of an oil and gas facility, where plumes of methane routinely spill out of industrial vents and into the air. In northwestern New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, a methane cloud is even visible by satellite.

But the state’s energy sector also employs nearly 20,000 New Mexicans and last year pumped $2.2 billion into state coffers, or roughly half of the state’s annual budget. It’s now operating the busiest oil field in America, with approximately 450 active rigs in the Permian Basin, a sagebrush-dotted, 75,000-square-mile region that includes Carlsbad and reaches east into Texas.

Still, that business comes at a heavy cost to residents’ health and the environment. “Oil and gas exploration and extraction emits several kinds of dangerous air pollution, including deadly fine particulate matter, which penetrates deep into the lungs and bloodstream,” says Vijay Limaye, Ph.D., NRDC Climate Change and Health Science Fellow. “These activities also spew out the building blocks for ozone pollution, which travels far downwind and aggravates respiratory problems like asthma. Pound for pound, methane gas traps 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide, which means it’s an especially dangerous climate pollutant—one that we must reduce, and fast.”

State officials hope to demonstrate to opponents of new oil and gas regulations that methane controls are critical for fighting climate change and related health risks. “The governor is extremely committed to bringing people along with our big initiatives, making sure we’re communicating and being transparent about what we're doing,” says Sarah Cottrell Propst, cabinet secretary of New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. “We’re really trying to create a model for one comprehensive approach to methane emissions.”

State officials also look at the emissions as a financial loss. The governor’s office puts the price tag for all that fuel burned off as excess or lost through leaks at about $244 million per year. “We look at it as the waste of a resource,” says Conservation Division Director Adrienne Sandoval. “We did a basic calculation that approximately $10 million in [tax] revenue could be raised” if those emissions were trapped and used.

Although the remoteness of many drilling sites has made it difficult and cost-prohibitive to capture leaked methane for reuse, recent breakthroughs are beginning to change that. For instance, researchers at MIT have developed a low-temperature electrochemical process for quickly converting methane into fuel for cars or for use in chemical manufacturing. In places with no electrical lines, processing could be powered by solar or wind energy.

These opportunities have yet to sway the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, which didn’t respond to interview requests. Democratic state representative Angelica Rubio, who supports tighter restrictions, characterizes the government’s methane-regulation meetings as packed with gas industry supporters, while officials are “tiptoeing around the methane emissions.”

Rubio is the executive director of N.M. Comunidades en Acción de Fé, or N.M. Café, one of the state’s largest faith-based advocacy groups. “For us as an organization, it’s really not just about addressing the impact of this industry,” she says. Instead, the goal is diversifying New Mexico’s economy so it’s not so tough to rein in a major polluter. “Because oil and gas has been such a big part of the state for almost 100 years, it is hard to have an honest conversation. A majority of my family works in the industry. But they have also seen the boom and bust of that industry.”

For an example, look no farther than San Juan County in northeastern New Mexico. It lost more than 7,000 oil, gas, and mining jobs during the Great Recession and has never fully recovered. Today, production has slowed as demand for natural gas flatlines.

Gas flaring in San Juan County, New Mexico

Negligence at the Top

If there is to be reform of New Mexico’s energy sector, it must also happen at the federal level. Last year, as part of a coalition of nearly 20 conservation and tribal citizen groups, NRDC sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over the rollback of a rule, adopted just three years earlier, that required oil and gas producers on public and tribal lands to better control methane venting, flaring, and leaks. These regulations had curbed the release of 180,000 tons of methane emissions each year—equivalent to the annual pollution from nearly 850,000 cars. In New Mexico the rollback spells particular danger for public lands, where 90 percent of Permian drilling occurs.

BLM spokeswoman June Lowery declined to comment on pending litigation. But Lissa Lynch, a staff attorney with NRDC’s Climate & Clean Energy Program, says the Obama-era rule aimed not only to reduce harmful methane emissions but also to prevent the waste of publicly owned resources. “When BLM leases out the rights to extract natural gas on public lands,” Lynch says, “federal law requires the agency to prevent lessees from wasting it.” The BLM, she says, “has not justified the 180-degree turn it took when it rescinded these commonsense protections.”

The federal government is also under fire in the Four Corners region, where hydraulic fracking encircles Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Indigenous residents worry not only about their health, but also about potential damage to important cultural sites. The government doesn’t seem interested in intervening, according to Brian Vallo, governor of the ancient Pueblo of Acoma, the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. “There is great negligence on the part of the federal agencies,” he says, “where they’re not even fulfilling their own laws and policy requirements.”

An image released by NASA shows the Four Corners area of New Mexico as a hot spot for methane emissions.
Credit: JPL-Caltech, University of Michigan via NASA

Members of the Navajo Nation likewise worry over the risks they face from so much drilling near their homes. “There is a huge need for research on the health impacts,” says Wendy Atcitty, New Mexico energy organizer for the grassroots Navajo group Diné C.A.R.E. “I grew up in an area where there were big wells next to us, and you were able to see the fumes and smell the pungent smells. This is our land, and it continues to be a sacrifice zone for energy development.”

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