Conservationists say the rule on ozone precursor pollutants developed by the New Mexico Department of the Environment should be strengthened, while supporters of the oil and gas industry say the draft rule is too restrictive and that the costs of upgrading the equipment could lead to the clogging of the wells.
Organizations on both sides had the opportunity to present arguments and answer questions during a two-week Environmental Improvement Council hearing that ended on Friday.
Ozone pollution is caused when volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides react in the presence of sunlight. It can be seen in the form of smog.
Several counties in New Mexico are pushing national federal ambient air quality standards for ozone and, if counties move to non-met status, they could lose access to federal funding for infrastructure projects. such as roads.
One of those counties is Eddy County, where the Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located.
Ozone levels in Carlsbad Caverns National Park rival those in major metropolises like Santiago, Chile and Mexico City, Mexico, according to Lisa DeVore, Inter-Mountain Air Quality Specialist for the National Park Service. . And these ozone levels can impact both human health and the environment.
“Put simply, people cannot be sacrificial lambs to make money,” State Senator Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, told the board in public comments. “And, when we consider the health impacts of oil and gas operations, we have the highest obligation as public servants, as you are, like me, to protect public health, to protect the air, to protect the air. protect the water. And so, in layman’s terms, we have an obligation to follow best practices to put in place the best standards available in science and available technologically. “
High levels of ozone can impact human health, including worsening respiratory problems such as asthma.
But that’s not the only danger to human health from emissions that lead to ozone. Lee Ann Hill, senior scientist at Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, said volatile organic compounds include hazardous air pollutants such as benzene, toluene, xylenes, hexane and ethylbenzene. These chemicals can increase the risk of cancer and can have other health effects as well. For example, long-term exposure to benzene can cause the body to not make enough new blood cells, and toluene impacts the central nervous system, Hill said.
Additionally, Hill said chronic exposure to ethylbenzene can adversely affect the liver, kidneys, and endocrine system.
She said people exposed to hexane for long periods of time may experience numbness in the extremities, muscle weakness and blurred vision.
These volatile organic compounds can also have respiratory effects.
The health impacts that hazardous air pollutants can have is one of the reasons conservationists have said the rule should be strengthened to include more frequent leak detection and repair activities near airways. homes and schools. Occidental Petroleum, one of the state’s main oil companies, backed the conservationists’ proposal and NMED also expressed support at the hearing.
Hill said that increased leak detection and repair can reduce facility emissions and thereby decrease the risks associated with living near oil and gas infrastructure.
In addition, conservationists urged the EIB to strengthen the rules by requiring the capture or combustion of emissions during well completion and by speeding up the schedule for replacing pneumatic controllers with zero-emission ones.
One of the main sources of emissions is pneumatic controllers. David McCabe, an atmosphere scientist for the Clean Air Task Force, said NMED’s proposed timeline for replacing pneumatic controllers with zero-emission alternatives is “far too slow.”
The proposed rule has different levels that operators must meet to adopt zero emission alternatives depending on the percentage of non-emitting controllers that the operator has historically had. The rule contains a formula that owners and operators can use to determine the historical percentage of total emission-free controllers. By 2030, however, 80-90% of pneumatic controllers at well sites, tank batteries, and collection and boost stations, and 98% of pneumatic controllers at transmission compressor stations and gas processing plants must be of the non-emitting type.
Pneumatic controllers use pressurized gas to open and close mechanical devices such as valves. This can lead to natural gas emissions, and McCabe said pneumatic controllers can malfunction, which can lead to more emissions.
He estimated that there are more than 118,000 pneumatic controllers in New Mexico that collectively emit about 108,000 metric tonnes of methane per year and 30,000 metric tonnes of volatile organic compounds each year.
McCabe said there are several options for replacing these controllers, including using compressed air rather than natural gas.
Another option is to use electrical controllers, but industry groups have pointed out that this may not always be possible due to access to power lines and the capacity of the region’s electrical infrastructure. There are electrical controllers that can use solar panels and storage batteries, McCabe said.
Industry representatives also highlighted supply chain challenges as a reason why oil and gas companies may struggle to meet tight deadlines for modernization or replacement of equipment such as pneumatic controllers. This could put operators in a situation of non-compliance with the rule due to factors beyond their control.
Related: PRC concerned about supply chain impacts leading to power shortages
Equipment upgrade costs
Those speaking in favor of the oil and gas industry argued that the rule is too restrictive and costly. They said it could lead to plugging wells, which would reduce the revenue the state collects.
As infrastructure modernization costs rise, the oil and gas industry cannot increase the selling price of its product, as Jerry McHugh, CEO and President of San Juan Resources, pointed out in a public commentary. Thursday.
“We don’t choose a price; we sell our production of natural gas and oil, ”he said.
McHugh said oil and gas companies are at the mercy of the markets.
Overly burdensome regulations will have more of an impact on small independent operators, industry officials and supporters have said.
And if companies were to close or if production fell because of the rules, the state budget would shrink.
State Representative Larry Scott, R-. Hobbs, was one of the public commentators who voiced concerns about the costs of complying with the rule. He said more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day from low-production wells would be at risk.
Catherine Brijalva, a resident of southeastern New Mexico, spoke about the importance of the oil and gas industry in Lea County. She said without funding from the oil and gas industry, it would be difficult to provide students with the same level of education. She said income from oil and gas production in the southern part of the state also funds areas in the northern part.
“And so without the industry, our state would certainly struggle, and our families would certainly not see the educational opportunities for their children,” Brijalva said.
But Tom Alexander, an Environmental Defense Fund consultant who has experience in the oil and gas industry, said if it’s prohibitively expensive to renovate a well to emit less, then maybe the well should be plugged. to prevent the state from having to clean it up in the future.
“From a political point of view, I think we have to stop trying to legislate for the perpetual existence of every well that sniffs gas or a gallon of oil a day,” he said. “If we do and continue to do it, I guarantee it, state by state will find itself the proud owner of tens of thousands more wells than those already orphaned.”
Related: Authorities say plugging orphan wells protects public health and the environment
Orphaned or abandoned wells occur when the wells are left without a legal owner. This often happens when businesses go bankrupt. At this point, the state intervenes to clean up the sites. While surety bonds for oil and gas companies are intended to provide funding to clean up sites in these cases, the bonds are not high enough to cover all costs.
“As we all know, many states today are already heavily laden with thousands and thousands of wells,” Alexander said.
He said it had to stop.
“If the wells that are so valiantly defended cannot bear minimal costs, then they should be plugged while the operators and revenues from the well are still viable,” Alexander said. “The argument for these sinks to go on and on is tired, it has been going on for decades. Look where it got us now.