New Mexico U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich lead a group of U.S. Senate Democrats in aiming to reinstate federal methane emission controls enacted under the administration of former-President Barack Obama but rescinded by his predecessor Donald Trump.
The senators introduced a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act for Trump’s rollback of the policies that “weakened or eliminated” requirements under the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for oil and gas companies limit emissions from operations.
“By passing this resolution of disapproval, Congress would be taking swift action to reinstate and strengthen responsible methane emission standards, which is critical to confronting the climate crisis and reducing the air pollution harming communities in New Mexico,” Heinrich said.
“But even absent its consequences for climate change, methane leaks waste valuable energy resources and harm public health.”
During Trump’s four years as President, his administration pushed an “energy dominance’ agenda by rolling back regulations on oil and gas operations and opening more public lands such as national parks and monuments to drilling and mining.
But that could change following the 2020 election as President Joe Biden enacted policies upon taking office in January to add stricter regulations on extraction and aggressively pursued initiatives aimed at mitigating pollution and climate change.
Democrats in Congress appear to be following suit as the party now controls both the House and Senate.
Of Trump’s energy policies, Heinrich said the former President’s actions weakened the federal Clean Air Act, leaving little environmental protections from oil and gas emissions and other pollution sources.
Methane has 80 times the global warming potential as carbon dioxide, and Heinrich argued it could be captured and sold to provide a greater return to taxpayers for fossil fuel operations on public lands.
“In the wake of the Trump administration, there are very few Clean Air Act protections left in place to limit emissions of dangerous methane pollution from the production, processing, transmission and storage of oil and gas in the United States,” Heinrich said.
“When methane leaks from oil and gas wells, harmful carcinogens like benzene leak into the air alongside it. That means children are suffering more asthma attacks, and seniors are having trouble breathing.”
The resolution specifically sought to reinstate 2016 regulations known as the and Natural Gas New Source Performance Standards, and if passed would reinstate methane restrictions on production and processing segments, along with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) requirements for transmission and storage infrastructure.
VOCs – gases like benzene, ethylene and glycol – result from industrial practices such as oil and gas production and create ground-level ozone when interacting with sunlight.
The regulations would increase reporting requirements for operators emitting methane or VOCs, and call for more use of gas capture and low-bleed technology to reduce emissions.
Ozone pollution is of particular concern in southeast New Mexico, an area known for heavy fossil fuel production but was also identified by the New Mexico Environment Department as having ozone pollution levels in exceedance of the federal National Ambient Air Quality Standard.
U.S. Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who joined Heinrich in introducing the resolution said Trump’s rollbacks of federal environmental regulations were detrimental to the U.S.’ efforts to address climate change.
He said Senate Democrats were committed to undoing Trump’s actions and would continue to do so.
“Methane standards are one of the most important ways to address an important source of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute significantly to climate change, and the Trump administration’s weakening of those standards was a dagger in the heart of efforts to address the climate crisis,” Schumer said.
“Senate Democrats said we would fight to reverse the previous administration’s illogical and devastating weakening of methane protections, and as Majority Leader, I am committing to using Congressional Review Act authority to do just that.”
Robert McEntyre with the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association said the industry expected to work with federal lawmakers on mitigating the environmental impact of extraction.
He pointed to recently enacted methane regulations on the state which were the result, McEntyre said, of collaboration between oil and gas operators, government agencies and local stakeholders.
"NMOGA welcomes the opportunity to engage with policymakers as they reconsider the federal approach to methane regulations," McEntyre said.
"The oil and gas industry has been leading through innovation and technology to limit emissions and the effects of climate change, and we are prepared to work with Congress and new administration to continue this vital work."
The move was supported by environmental groups in New Mexico, as Celerah Hawes, New Mexico field organizer with Moms Clean Air Force said air pollution from oil and gas disproportionately affects minority communities and stricter regulations would protect New Mexico’s vulnerable populations.
“In New Mexico, the areas with the most oil and gas operations are home to Latino and Indigenous communities,” she said. “These populations are being burdened by the harmful air pollution that is leaking, venting, and flaring at alarming rates and can cause respiratory and heart disease.”
Executive Director of New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light Joan Brown said methane pollution from oil and gas was concerning in New Mexico as oil and gas operations boomed in recent years but brought dire impacts to human health and the environment in oil and gas regions.
Aside from enforcing tougher standards she called on the EPA to cut methane emissions from oil and gas by 65 percent from 2012 levels to make an impact on climate change.
“We know about methane pollution, its effects on the health of people, on climate change and we have the technical means to address it,” Brown said.
“This step is an important ethical direction that demonstrates the commitment of supporters in the Senate to protect communities, public health and our climate to reduce methane waste and pollution from oil and gas development.”