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EPA will crack down on Permian Basin air pollution, state Environment secretary says — and NM isn't ready

A pump jack in New Mexico's portion of the Permian Basin.
Blake Thornberry
Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A pump jack in New Mexico's portion of the Permian Basin.

New Mexico’s top environment official says the federal government is going to move forward with addressing high levels of ozone in parts of the Permian Basin by the end of this year, ramping up air quality regulations in the highly productive and profitable oil and gas region. The state is ill-equipped to take on the additional work, says State Environment Secretary James Kenney, which could mean losing its permitting power to the U.S. government.

The Environmental Protection Agency last month hit pause on a process that began last summer of re-designating a region in southeast New Mexico and west Texas an Ozone Nonattainment Area for violating standards of the Clean Air Act.

“That should not be misread that it’s not happening,” Sec. Kenney told KUNM of the re-designation. “Monitoring data that we’re getting in Carlsbad indicates it will happen, and EPA has said to me it will happen. They just need more time to get to that point. So, it’s coming.”

The EPA cited monitoring data and “other air quality factors" in the area as its rationale for considering the designation. The National Park Service found in a multi-year study that oil and gas activities were "the main source" of volatile organic compounds, which help form ozone, surrounding Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southeast New Mexico.

"We agree with that study. We agree that the oil and gas industry is a leading cause and contributor of the rising ozone levels," said Kenney. "We're not fighting with the feds over the science, because it's accurate."

Not if, but when that designation comes down later this year, Kenney said, it’ll trigger a lot of extra work for his agency, which is already struggling to keep up with its duties.

“Everything from permitting to monitoring of the air quality changes and becomes more rigorous,” he said. “We don’t have the staff or budget in order to rise to the occasion of redoing — effectively — our permitting regime, which is required under federal law.

The Environment Department is requesting $32 million in one-time money from lawmakers this session, $2 million of which would go toward preparing for these eventual administrative changes.

“Once the governors of New Mexico and Texas are notified that this is now moving forward, there is a clock that starts under the federal Clean Air Act and we’ll have certain milestones we’ll have to meet.” Kenny said. “That’s exactly why we’re trying to get ahead of it.”

The Legislative Finance Committee, however, has proposed a substantially smaller agency budget.

If the Environment Department can’t meet the new requirements, Kenney said it risks losing the ability to conduct its own air monitoring and permitting. The EPA, which doesn’t have an office in the state, would take on that work for New Mexico instead.

“That would be a serious setback for us,” Kenney said of NMED losing its permitting authority.

He said NMED would also lose out on permit fee revenue in that case, which — along with federal grants — makes up 80% of the agency’s budget.

The Legislature is set to hear the New Mexico Environment Department’s budget this week. 

Updated: February 8, 2023 at 12:55 PM MST
When asked to confirm whether U.S. EPA officials told Sec. Kenney that parts of the Permian Basin will be redesignated an Ozone Nonattainment Area by the end of 2023, a spokesperson for EPA Region 6 did not confirm nor deny it, saying by email only, “We have no updates at this time.”
Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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