Occidental Petroleum sued for air pollution in Permian Basin

One of the Permian Basin’s major oil and gas producers could be sued by an environmental group in New Mexico who claimed the company illegally released air pollutants at facilities in the southeastern corner of the state.

Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians on Nov. 18 filed a notice of its intention to sue Occidental Petroleum over “widespread” air quality violations in the Permian Basin region, which stretches from the southeast. from New Mexico and parts of West Texas.

The group specifically highlighted Occidental’s use of flaring, a controversial process by which excess gas produced is burned off.

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The technique could be used to safely pressurize a well, industry executives argued, but the environmentalist feared it could create excessive air pollution.

Earlier this year, the New Mexico Petroleum Conservation Commission finalized rules to end the practice of routine flaring, only allowing its use in emergencies and severely limiting it even then.

Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director at WildEarth Guardians, said oil companies like Occidental (Oxy) should be held accountable for alleged non-compliance with state air quality laws.

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“For too long, Oxy and other oil and gas companies have turned their backs on our clean air laws, putting people and communities at risk in New Mexico and beyond,” Nichols said. . “The oil and gas industry is not above the law and we intend to apply the necessary safeguards to keep our air safe and healthy.”

In a statement, Occidental spokesman Eric Moses declined to comment on the impending lawsuit but defended the company’s value in reducing emissions. He said Occidental plans to eliminate flaring from its operations within the next decade.

“We do not comment on potential disputes. Occidental is committed to reducing emissions from our operations wherever we operate and is committed to eliminating routine flaring by 2030, ”he said.

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In its filing, WildEarth Guardians cited its own research which showed that Occidental had reported 1,800 violations at Turk Track Central’s battery compression and gas sales facility near Carlsbad, arguing that the Department of L The New Mexico Environment (NMED) had not yet taken action.

“These violations epitomize the industry’s blatant disregard for the law and clean air and the state of New Mexico’s refusal to hold the industry accountable,” Nichols said. “This is not about a company or a facility, it is about a complete lack of accountability within the entire oil and gas industry and the state regulatory system. . “

The violations dated back to 2019, the group alleged, including events of “hours” emissions and thousands of pounds of air pollution.

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WildEarth Guardians has estimated that Occidental could face up to $ 350 million in penalties for such violations. In March, the group filed a petition with the United States Environmental Protection Agency to sanction the state of New Mexico for its alleged failure to enforce air pollution regulations.

Will New Mexico’s actions to reduce air pollution be enough?

NMED was underway with its own regulations to reduce volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from oil and gas facilities in the region and other areas of New Mexico identified as having dangerous concentrations of ground-level ozone.

The rules drafted by the ministry were presented to the Environmental Improvement Council in September with a vote on their enactment expected later this year or in early 2022.

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Supporters and opponents of the rules have debated their cost to industry and the effectiveness of air pollution regulation.

Environmental groups argued that the rules did not go far enough in containing language allowing small producers to avoid certain requirements.

Meanwhile, industry officials and Republican lawmakers have argued that the cost of complying with the new rules would place an undue burden on oil and gas companies, which are one of New Mexico’s main economic engines, providing up to ‘to a third of the state budget.

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NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney in a letter to lawmakers said the rules met legal requirements for the ministry to protect air quality, an obligation that was not met after the budget cuts imposed by the previous administration of the former government. Susana Martinez.

“The Department has not been able to engage in meaningful compliance assurance activities to deter emissions from the expanding oil and gas industry. As a result, ozone levels have reached unhealthy levels in the oil and gas producing areas of New Mexico, ”Kenney wrote.

But despite the rules, environmental groups like WildEarth Guardians feared continued emissions from oil and gas producers like Occidental could mean new regulations could be ignored.

“This case isn’t just about Oxy, it’s about standing up for clean air for the entire Permian Basin,” Nichols said. “Our goal is to end the oil and gas industry’s attacks on public health, environmental justice and a safe climate.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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