by James Jimenez
Sept. 23, 2020

This week’s must-read is an oil and gas industry exposé in the New York Times, “A Secret Recording Reveals Oil Executives’ Private Views on Climate Change.” It’s an emperor has no clothes moment and the big lie is the industry’s contention that methane emissions are under control. In fact, one lobbyist is on tape saying the industry is “just flaring a tremendous amount of gas.”

The story is also a potent reminder that New Mexico’s over-reliance on oil and gas leaves our state vulnerable, putting us at risk both to the impacts of pollution on our health and the environment and to the economic effects of oil price fluctuations. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham must double down on her efforts to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for its waste, fight climate-wrecking methane pollution, and diversify the state’s economy.

Each year in New Mexico, oil and gas companies waste hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of natural gas through venting, flaring, and leaks, each of which worsens air pollution and costs the state more than $43 million in lost royalty and tax revenue. That is enough revenue to increase pre-K enrollment by 80 percent and offer more than 7,000 additional New Mexico kids access to quality early childhood education.

The NYT article’s revelations are at once shocking and not surprising, with lobbyists who have spent years fighting against regulations to reduce methane waste and pollution admitting the problem is real.

And if you suspected the industry is more concerned about its image than protecting your health, you’re right. Its answer to out-of-control methane emissions? More image polishing and public relations advertising, with this from Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association:

“In Colorado, we’ve been kind of playing a game of whack-a-mole. We went from where fracking was the dirty word and contaminated your water. And we inundated them with information about that and blitzed the TV airwaves. Then slowly that changed into a health and safety messaging. And so we’re ramping up our health and safety messaging.”

New Mexico’s own Ryan Flynn, who is executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA), is also caught on tape, and the fact that he singles out “young voters, female voters, Hispanic voters,” when discussing environmental concerns is tone deaf. These are the very groups that are disproportionately affected by pollution from oil and gas operations, including ozone-forming pollutants that worsen respiratory diseases and trigger asthma attacks, so their concerns are well grounded.

NMOGA needs to stop viewing these issues through a PR lens and work to earn New Mexicans’ support by being honest and accountable for the industry’s methane waste and pollution problem. As a start, NMOGA should oppose the Trump Administration’s contemptuous rollbacks of federal methane protections. 

And as New Mexico finalizes its rules, NMOGA should support sound policies for all operators in the state to find and fix leaks and eliminate methane venting and flaring. As the draft rules stand now, they are inadequate and include loopholes that would effectively exempt the vast majority of wells in New Mexico from leak detection and repair requirements.

If the industry is serious about changing its practices and image, it should get on board with eliminating exemptions for low-producing stripper wells and for other sites below a 15 ton per year pollution threshold.

Many of those wells are in San Juan County, where a disproportionate share of children, Hispanics, and Native Americans live within a half mile of a well. In fact, more than 90 percent of Hispanics and almost half of all Native Americans in San Juan County live within a half mile of an exempted wellsite, as do 72 percent of kids younger than five.

In the Permian Basin, 28,000 New Mexicans live within one half mile of these wells, including more than one third of Hispanics and a third of children younger than five in the area.

At the same time, we must not allow the oil and gas industry’s outsized impact on our state budget and economy to be an excuse to ignore the detrimental effects of fossil fuel dependency on our climate, our air quality, and the health of our communities.

It’s time for a comprehensive strategy to reduce our dependence on oil and natural gas and build a sustainable, prosperous economy for the 21st century. Our children deserve no less.

James Jimenez is executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children