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New Mexico's bold plan on methane pollution should serve as a model

New Mexico's bold plan on methane pollution should serve as a model
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While the U.S. and Russia may not agree on much, together they lead the world as the top emitters of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas that is soaring to record levels in the earth’s atmosphere. But New Mexico, the third-biggest U.S. oil producer and a leading methane emitter, just finalized ambitious new rules to curtail methane pollution. It means other states and the Biden administration, which has promised to take on methane, can now look to the Land of Enchantment for the way forward.

New Mexico’s rule, which follows over a year of public debate and is part of Gov. Michelle Lujan GrishamMichelle Lynn Lujan GrishamDC deserves a governor Biden to talk vaccination strategy with bipartisan governors DC mayor admitted to Democratic governors group amid statehood fight MORE’s (D) aggressive climate plan, calls for the oil and gas industry to capture 98 percent of its methane by 2026. This will require staunching the wasteful venting and flaring of natural gas, which is comprised almost entirely of methane. Today, it is discharged from thousands of wells as a cost-savings measure.

New Mexico is also preparing a companion rule to address widespread leaking of methane from across the state’s oil and gas supply chain, which includes part of the mammoth Permian Basin it shares with Texas. The leaking occurs at well pads, pipelines, compressors, storage facilities and more, a system-wide problem that creates methane plumes large enough to detect from space. The draft rule on leaking, expected in May, would require regular inspection and repair of leaky equipment, which today goes largely unmitigated as another cost-savings measure.

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Controlling methane is a climate imperative. The gas has 80 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide, making it a potent driver of climate change. NASA says it has fueled a whopping 25 percent of human-caused global warming to date, a proportion projected to climb. And Environmental Protection Agency estimates, which are increasingly panned as too low, show methane pollution has been rising roughly since the U.S. oil boom began in the early 2000s.

Research also shows that methane increasingly enters the atmosphere from biogenic sources such as wetlands or thawing permafrost. In the latter, warming tied to methane begets more methane. It is the ominous type of feedback loop that global warming alarmists have rightfully warned about for decades.

But potentially hopeful news is that methane only survives in the atmosphere for about 10 years, in contrast to the centuries-long lifespan of carbon dioxide. Consequently, methane rules today could produce swift returns on climate as the world grapples with the harder problem of carbon dioxide emissions.

Methane and associated pollutants also contribute to harmful ground-level ozone, which is linked to premature birth, respiratory illness and other health problems. Lujan Grisham made this part of her campaign for regulation, pointing out that poor air quality disproportionately impacts poor communities. That concern helped build support from Indigenous and other groups, outweighing fears that taking the oil and gas industry to task would detract from drilling royalties, which provide more than a third of New Mexico’s revenue for education, health, and other services. 

Lujan Grisham also wisely made fiscal accountability part of her push for a new day on methane. Venting, flaring, and leaking — all monumentally wasteful practices — send an estimated $43 million in potential state revenue into New Mexico’s thin air every year.

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Colorado, which in 2014 became the first state to regulate methane, saw the same trifecta of bad results from methane: It hurts state agriculture and recreation economies through its climate impact, harms the health of state residents and wastes potential state revenue. Colorado has since strengthened its original rule.

Colorado also stood as a model for the first national methane regulations, which the Obama administration implemented in 2016. Unfortunately, the Trump administration dismantled the rules, a move opposed by major oil producers who feared it would damage the image of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to clean energy. Today, more than ever, methane pollution shows that supposed bridge carries a costly toll for both human health and the climate.

President BidenJoe BidenCaitlyn Jenner says election was not 'stolen,' calls Biden 'our president' Manchin, Biden huddle amid talk of breaking up T package Overnight Energy: 5 takeaways from the Colonial Pipeline attack | Colonial aims to 'substantially' restore pipeline operations by end of week | Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE campaigned on restoring federal methane regulation and issued executive orders on his first day in office that set a September goal for designing a strategy. Crafting new rules will likely take several years, but New Mexico and Colorado regulations now set a high bar that cannot be ignored. By applying to both new and existing oil and gas infrastructure, they are stronger than the original Obama regulations, which only addressed new permits.

New Mexico’s new rules also put pressure on other oil-producing states to fix their own bad deals on methane. Today, oil-producing state across the country, including top methane emitters such as Texas, Pennsylvania and North Dakota, offer only a ragged patchwork of regulations that include tax incentives, voluntary targets, and limited rules often tilted in industry’s favor. With fossil fuel production ramping back up, and global temperatures rising, New Mexico just showed these uneven approaches are badly outdated.

Tim Lydon has worked on the public lands in the West and Alaska for three decades, in both commercial guiding and federal lands management. His is the author of “Passage to Alaska, Two Months Sea Kayaking the Inside Passage.” Follow him @TimLydonAK.