By Rebecca Moss | The Santa Fe New Mexican

The Trump administration halted certain federal methane regulations Thursday, suspending for 90 days requirements for drillers to report and significantly reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas.

On a dark day for climate advocates, the federal stay was in keeping with President Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, the largest global pact to lower greenhouse gas emissions and keep temperatures from rising beyond irreversible levels in coming decades.

The relaxation of regulatory oversight for the oil and gas industry will have a broad effect in New Mexico, which has seen a spike in production and is already home to the nation’s largest concentration of methane pollution, experts say.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it was “following through with its commitment” to allow oil and gas drillers not to comply with a number of the agency’s methane-capture regulations — enacted a year ago by then-President Barack Obama’s administration. The rules were intended to curb air pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama had pledged the U.S. would reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide and methane by between 26 percent and 28 percent by 2025 as part of the Paris accord. The EPA’s methane-capture rule was one of several regulations designed to help prevent the damaging consequences of climate change. Hotter temperatures in New Mexico are projected to usher in drought and wildfires.

Groups in New Mexico, ranging from Democratic congressional delegates to physicians and trout fishermen, condemned the Trump administration’s action on the climate agreement and the suspension of the methane regulations.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called withdrawing from the Paris accord “an absolutely tragic mistake.”
Molly Sanders, director of the Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund, called it “unacceptable for the Trump administration to give the oil and gas industry a free pass to continue to endanger our climate and pollute the air that thousands of New Mexicans breathe.”

But oil and gas industry advocates say a rollback of costly and unnecessary regulations will improve profit margins and increase royalties received by the state.

Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said the group doesn’t believe a sufficient cost-benefit analysis has been done on any of the recent federal regulations governing oil and gas.

“This rule really is a solution in search of a problem,” he said, adding that leak-monitoring equipment could cost up to $250,000 to install on a new well.

“At a time when the state is dealing with declining revenues — and we just had a special session up here to work on the budget — this is not welcome news to New Mexico producers,” McEntyre said, “and is not welcome news to New Mexico at all.”

The EPA’s statement said the stay is in keeping with Trump’s executive order for energy independence, which called for a review of all oil and gas rules.

An advocacy group, the Environmental Defense Fund, said it will file a federal lawsuit challenging the decision. The stay suspends “vital pollution limits,” the group said, and is a “dangerous and unprecedented action” by the EPA.

“Every day these vital protections are not in place is a day when the health and well-being of communities across the country is put at risk from dangerous air pollution,” Peter Zalzal, lead attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.

Years of oil and gas operations in the Four Corners region of New Mexico have contributed to a 2,500-square-mile cloud of atmospheric methane, according to a series of satellite studies by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But most new drilling is concentrated in the Permian Basin of Southern New Mexico and West Texas, where an oil boom may be about to occur after years of stagnation.

Between May 19 and May 26, seven new rigs were added in the U.S., for a total of 504 new rigs since May 2016, according to Baker Hughes, an oilfield service company that generates weekly counts. With 57 operating rigs, New Mexico is fourth among the states, behind Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. This is a significant increase for New Mexico, which averaged 39 rigs at the start of the year, and just 18 in May 2016.

In January, Exxon Mobil announced it would expand its operations in Southern New Mexico, doubling investments to 6 billion barrels of oil by acquiring 250,000 acres in the Permian Basin.

Oil and gas prices have plummeted in recent years because of market saturation, causing layoffs and the shutdown of smaller wells that are costlier to operate. Many industry experts said companies couldn’t sustain the added costs of regulations drafted and made final by the Obama administration. The regulations called for increased monitoring and reporting, as well as installation of leak-detection technology.

More than 60 national groups, including the San Juan Citizens Alliance and the Western Environmental Law Center, sent a letter to EPA Director Scott Pruitt on May 25, asking him to keep the EPA’s methane rule in place.

Environmentalists saw a small victory in May when a similar rule by the Bureau of Land Management, which limits methane emissions on federal and tribal lands, was allowed to remain in place despite efforts in Congress to repeal it.

While Congress allowed the BLM rule to remain in effect, the U.S. Interior Department has said it will review the regulation and likely will revise it.

Pruitt in April notified four large oil and gas interests, including the American Petroleum Institute, that he intended to stay the regulations, the first step in a revision process. The groups had written to the EPA, saying the rule-making process had not allowed them to voice their concerns about emissions-monitoring requirements and low-producing wells. Pruitt said he agreed.

The former attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt has close ties to the oil and gas industry and has received significant campaign contributions from the industry.

The EPA’s methane rule was crafted over more than a year and received more than 900,000 comments before it was put in place.