Air pollution in Eddy County could soon trigger federal restrictions on oil and gas operations throughout the Permian Basin, which spans southeast New Mexico and West Texas.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced earlier this summer it could designate the region in both states in violation of federal air quality standards, adding additional reporting requirements and costs to the permitting process for oil and gas operations.
The EPA said it would decide on the designation by September, basing the determination for the entire region on ozone levels measured in Eddy County around Carlsbad where the agency has an air monitor station.
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The Permian Basin is the U.S.’ most active oilfield, centered in rural corners of the two states.
Those areas like Carlsbad are also known for high levels of ground-level ozone, a cancer-causing pollutant created when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other airborne chemicals emitted by fossil fuel operations interact with sunlight.
The EPA aimed to reduce the pollution and threats to public health it could cause, but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in an Aug. 23 letter to President Joe Biden that such a move could threaten the oil and gas industry Abbott said was essential to America’s economy and energy supplies.
Nora Sackett, press secretary to New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham argued the people of her state have “a right to breathe clean, healthy air.”
A designation of the area exceeding the standards would be warranted, Sackett said, if data showed elevated air pollution in the region warranted such restrictions.
“A non-attainment designation is not a matter of policy or ‘support’ – the fact is, ozone levels in the Permian Basin are at all-time highs, adversely impacting the health of residents in southeast New Mexico,” Sackett said via email. “This administration firmly believes that we do not have to sacrifice the health of our people to maintain a strong and viable oil and gas industry in our state.”
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Along with several West Texas counties within the Permian, the EPA’s rules would likely apply to New Mexico’s top oil counties: Eddy and Lea and could also impact Chaves County to the north that could see if air quality affected by nearby fossil fuel operations.
The determination is based on alleged ozone concentration in these areas exceeding the federal National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS), and the EPA recently announced it would use aircraft to investigate the region for such violations.
The State of New Mexico warned for years that levels in the southeast corner of the state exceeded the NAAQS, along with fossil fuel-producing areas in Northwest New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, and around urban centers in the Las Cruces and Albuquerque metropolitan areas.
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The NAAQS requires areas maintain ozone levels at 70 parts per billion (ppb) or lower.
Eddy County averaged ozone readings above the NAAQS since 2017, per data from the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) which reported ozone levels peaked in 2019 at 79 ppb.
The designation being considered by the EPA would only apply to the Permian Basin, and if the regulations were imposed, Abbott said in his letter that they could slow oil and gas production and “jeopardize 25 percent of the nation’s supply of gasoline.”
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He argued the EPA was basing its air pollution research on air monitors stationed in Carlsbad, and that another in Hobbs did not show an exceedance of the NAAQS.
Abbott also said it was unfair of the EPA to apply New Mexico data to his state where the EPA does not have air monitors.
“Of course, the dearth of logic and data to support the administration’s position has little to do with process and procedure,” he wrote. “It is grounded in your desire to eliminate oil and gas production in Texas.”
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With about a month left to make the determination, Abbott said the federal government was “deliberately” rushing the process without adequate research or state input and that the state was prepared to take the argument to court.
“Cooperating with states and performing a thorough assessment of the available technical data beyond a mere proximity test is a deliberate process that takes time,” he wrote. “Because your administration has very little of it remaining, you refuse to deliberate or halt this “discretionary” action despite the adverse impacts on Americans.”
In June, upon the EPA’s initial announcement it was considering the designation, Abbott wrote an initial letter opposing the move and EPA Administrator Michael Regan responded in a July 27 letter provided by Abbott’s office, that such actions could be needed to protect the public and the environment.
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He said ozone levels were observed exceeding the NAAQS in the Permian Basin, specifically in Eddy County for more than four years, potentially warranting federal action under the Clean Air Act.
Regan said both Abbott and Lujan Grisham would be notified and consulted when implementing the new rules.
“EPA is committed to its mission to protect human health and the environment,” Regan wrote. “EPA also recognizes the challenges associated with taking and implementing regulatory actions, which is why EPA is also committed to working closely with the states of Texas and New Mexico and other interested parties as we consider how best to ensure healthy air quality in the Eddy County, New Mexico area.”
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To offset heightened ozone levels and prevent federal restrictions, NMED enacted earlier this year new regulations oil and gas operators in the state must follow to increase reporting requirements for air pollution emission, leak detection and repair.
Sackett said the rules were intended to curb pollution from oil and gas, and she said State expected air quality would improve as the state regulations were implemented.
“The deteriorating air quality in southeast New Mexico is exactly why we needed the nationally leading emissions reductions rules in the oil and gas industry,” Sackett said. We are confident that the new regulations spearheaded by the Lujan Grisham administration in collaboration with the industry and other stakeholders will result in reductions of ozone-causing air pollutants.
“However, these reductions will likely take some time to take effect.”
NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said in response to the EPA’s proposal that those new regulations came too late to impact the agency’s decision making and displayed widespread emission violations throughout New Mexico’s oil and gas industry.
“We won’t see the benefit of our rule going into effect in lowering ozone levels in a way that is meaningful to the EPA,” he said. “Could the industry have done more? Absolutely. The investments in emission control in the Permian Basin are lacking.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.