Air monitoring at Carlsbad Caverns National Park showed air pollution in the area increased in recent years alongside growth in oil and gas operations.
New Mexico aimed to curb such impacts of extraction in the coming year as the State of New Mexico prepared to finalize new regulations aimed at ozone created by extraction.
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) announced a public hearing next month on the released draft of its ozone precursor rules, which would require oil and gas operators to reduce the emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) from facilities used in fossil fuel production.
The chemicals combine with sunlight to create ground-level ozone, known to cause respiratory illness and cancer.
In comments submitted by the National Park Service ahead of the upcoming meeting, the agency testified that air quality monitored at Carlsbad Caverns National Park contained heightened levels of VOC’s which the Park Service contended were mainly from oil and gas operations.
Nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, the comments read, were from other local sources.
A multi-year study by the Park Service showed days when the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) of 70 parts per billion (ppb) of ozone was exceeded gradually increased from 67 in 2016 to 73 in 2020, as oil and gas operations also grew in the region.
The Park Service testified that of the many National Parks that study air quality, Carlsbad Caverns was the most impacted by oil and gas, with air on days of heightened ozone levels recorded as most likely coming from the east where oil and gas activities are concentrated along the Texas-New Mexico border in the Permian Basin.
“The measures proposed in this rule will help to reduce high ozone concentrations – more measures or more stringent measures are likely necessary to get below the NAAQS – this is a necessary step,” read the NPS testimony.
“NOx and VOC control measures are necessary to reduce ozone.”
New Mexico taking action to cut air pollution from oil and gas
New regulations would target counties known for heightened ozone levels threatening to exceed federal limits and would apply only to areas where heightened ozone levels were found.
High levels were recorded by the state in Eddy and Lea counties, in the oil-rich, southeast Permian Basin, and New Mexico’s other main extraction region in the northwest region in San Juan, Sandoval and Rio Arriba counties.
Dangerous levels of ozone were also found near urban centers in Bernalillo and Valencia counties, near Albuquerque, and Dona Ana County which contains Las Cruces along the U.S.-Mexico border.
If approved by New Mexico’s Environmental Improvement Board (EIB), the NMED estimated the rules would result in cutting 260 million pounds per year of air-polluting emissions.
A hearing before the EIB was scheduled to start Sept. 20 when the board will hear testimony from the Department and other stakeholders to consider the new rules, along with public comments.
NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said the proposed rules were developed in collaboration with oil and gas industry leaders and environmental groups alike.
“We collaborated, we listened, and we are on the cusp of delivering a nationally leading oil and natural gas rule that will address the public health hazard of rising ozone levels,” Kenney said.
“On September 20, the Environmental Improvement Board will take up this science-based proposed rule which the public, environmental groups and industry helped to shape.”
Inaction by State could mean federal restrictions
In NMED’s technical testimony submitted July 28, Michael Baca with the Department’s Air Quality Bureau said sites in Eddy and Dona Ana counties were in violation of the federal standard while the other five counties with heightened levels were at 95 percent or more of the limit.
That meant, Baca wrote, that the State must take action to mitigate ozone levels and avoid federal restrictions on future oil and gas operations or other activities that could generate ozone.
The rulemaking was the first step in the State’s Ozone Attainment Initiative intended to address the increasing health risk, Baca wrote, and the NMED plans to propose additional regulations on industries aside from oil and gas.
“Children are at greatest risk from ozone exposure because their lungs are still developing and they are more likely to be active outdoors when ozone levels are high, which increases their exposure,” read Baca’s testimony.
“The Bureau will coordinate efforts with local governments, industry, academia, and the public to take proactive steps towards the protection of air quality.”
In his submitted testimony, President of the Independent Petroleum Association (IPANM) of New Mexico Jeffrey Davis who also works as operations manager at Merrion Oil and Gas in Farmington said regulating VOCs from oil and gas was “not necessary” to reduce ozone levels as emissions in oil-producing southeast and northwest regions, he said, were mostly NOx.
“We do not believe that a reduction in VOC emissions will lower ozone concentrations in the Southeast and Northwest or assure that the areas do not become nonattainment areas for zzone,” read the testimony.
The Association also proposed changes to the rules ahead of the EIB’s consideration to allow an area within 95 percent of NAAQS to avoid the regulations if ozone levels were reduced below that threshold in the future or add a county to the rules if it later exceeds the standard.
“If the proposed regulations (or amendments to the regulations) are to be adopted by the Board, IPANM believes that the scope should be limited to those areas with a design value of greater than 95 percent of the federal ozone NAAQS and that it should be the Board’s responsibility to add or delete areas subject to the regulations, based on future monitored ozone concentrations,” read Davis’ testimony.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.