One of the Permian Basin’s leading oil and gas producers could be taken to court by a New Mexico environmental group which alleged the company illegally released air pollutants at facilities in the southeast corner of the state.
Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians filed on Nov. 18 a notice of its intent to sue Occidental Petroleum for “widespread” air quality violations in the Permian Basin region, which spans from southeast New Mexico and parts of West Texas.
The group specifically pointed to Occidental’s use of flaring, a controversial process by which excess produced gas is burned off.
The technique could be used to safely pressurize a well, industry leaders argued, but environmentalist worried it created undue air pollution.
Earlier this year, New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Commission finalized rules to end the practice of routine flaring, only allowing its use in case of an emergency a severely limiting it even then.
Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director at WildEarth Guardians said oil companies like Occidental (Oxy) should be held accountable for alleged noncompliance with state air quality laws.
“For too long, Oxy and other oil and gas companies have turned their backs on our clean air laws, putting people and communities at risk in New Mexico and beyond,” Nichols said. “The oil and gas industry isn’t above the law and we intend to enforce the safeguards needed to keep our air safe and healthy.”
In a statement, Occidental spokesperson Eric Moses declined to comment on the impending lawsuit but defended the company’s value for reducing emissions. He said Occidental planned to eliminate flaring from its operations in the next decade.
“We do not comment on potential litigation. Occidental is committed to reducing emissions in our operations everywhere we operate and has pledged to eliminate routine flaring by 2030,” he said.
In its filing WildEarth Guardians cited its own research that showed Occidental reported 1,800 violations at the company’s Turk Track Central Tank Batter and Gas Sales Compression facility near Carlsbad, arguing the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) had yet to take action.
“These violations epitomize industry’s glaring disregard for the law and clean air and the State of New Mexico’s refusal to hold industry accountable,” Nichols said. “This isn’t about one company or one facility, this is about a complete lack of accountability within the entire oil and gas industry and the state regulatory system.”
The violations dated back to 2019, the group alleged, including “hours-long” emission events and thousand of pounds of air pollution.
WildEarth Guardians estimated Occidental could be liable for up to $350 million in penalties from such violations. In March, the group filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to sanction the State of New Mexico for its alleged failure to enforce air pollution regulations.
Will New Mexico’s actions to cut air pollution be enough?
NMED was underway with its own rulemaking to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from oil and gas facilities in the region and other New Mexico areas identified as having dangerous concentrations of ground level ozone.
The rules drafted by the Department were presented to the Environmental Improvement Board in September with a vote on their enactment expected later this year or in early 2022.
Supporters and opponents of the rules debated their cost to the industry and effectiveness in regulating air pollution.
Environmental groups argued the rules did not go far enough by containing language to allow smaller producers to avoid some requirements.
Meanwhile, industry officials and Republican lawmakers contended the cost of compliance with the new rules would place an undue burden on oil and gas companies, which represent one of New Mexico’s key economic drivers, reportedly providing up to a third of the state’s budget.
NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney, in a letter to lawmakers, said the rules were in response to statutory requirements that the Department protect air quality, a duty that went unfulfilled after budget cuts imposed by the previous administration of former-Gov. Susana Martinez.
“The Department was unable to engage in any meaningful compliance assurance activities to deter emissions from the rapidly expanding oil and gas industry. As a result, ozone levels have risen to unhealthy levels in the oil and gas producing regions of New Mexico,” Kenney wrote.
But despite the rules, environmental groups like WildEarth Guardians worried continued emissions by oil and gas producers like Occidental could mean new regulations could be ignored.
“This case isn’t just about Oxy, it’s about defending clean air for the entire Permian Basin,” Nichols said. “Our aim is to put an end to the oil and gas industry’s assault on public health, environmental justice, and a safe climate.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.