ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The oil and gas industry in New Mexico brings billions of dollars to the state, but it also brings air pollution in the form of volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and other components that can form ground-level ozone. To better protect New Mexicans from the pollutants that can exacerbate asthma and increase the risk of pneumonia, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) is launching a six-month campaign to crack down on polluters.
“A lot of the community members have been very concerned about ozone in different places throughout New Mexico, and so it’s definitely a priority to listen,” Michelle Miano, the director of NMED’s Environmental Protection Division, told KRQE News 13. “Our own data monitors, especially in areas around the Permian Basin and the San Juan Basin, they show higher than allowed [pollutants].”
The environment department regularly works to ensure oil and gas companies are following the rules. But recently, there’s been poor compliance, the department says.
“Despite record fines levied and collected against the oil and natural gas industry – many operators are not taking compliance with federal and state air quality rules and permits seriously,” Environment Department Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said in a press release. “From July 2022 through July 2023, the Environment Department found a dismal 50.0% compliance rate for air quality requirements.”
To address the low compliance, Miano says the department is planning on looking at more data and partnering with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to try to get more oil and gas companies to reduce pollution.
“We have folks lined up for the next three to six months, where we’re going to be layering data points from satellites, from flyovers, from complaints all across the Permian and San Juan Basins to start addressing what we know is a huge problem,” Miano says. “This effort represents a message from our department to noncompliant oil and gas operators that we are watching, and we will hold you accountable if you’re not following our rules.”
Across the state, there are hundreds of oil and gas operators spread across hundreds of miles. That’s a lot for one state government office to cover, and Miano says staffing has been a challenge.
“We’ve seen our air quality bureau staff just really working overtime as best as they can,” Miano says. “We had a rapid-hire event a few weeks ago, so we are looking to fill positions. If you care about the environment, if you care about air quality, we have positions open where you can really make a difference.”
On top of staffing, Miano says coordination has also been difficult in the past. Bringing enforcement actions across various tribal, state, local, and federal jurisdictions isn’t always easy, but Miano says the latest enforcement effort will be done under better coordination.
Finally, a big challenge is working with operators across state boundaries.
“New Mexico shares the Permian Basin with Texas, and they have a very different regulatory structure than we do as far as how aggressive they want to be or not be,” Miano says. Texas, she explains, relies heavily on the industry policing itself, whereas New Mexico relies heavily on state-based enforcement. “Even as we enforce on the New Mexico side, there are still issues on the Texas side that are outside of our jurisdiction.”