EHS Administration, Sustainability

Group Sues EPA to Suspend Oil Company’s New Mexico Permits

In May, WildEarth Guardians filed suit against the EPA in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico. The purpose of the suit is to compel the EPA to revise Houston-based Targas Resources Corp’s operating permits in the Permian Basin.

On November 16, 2022, in response to Guardians’ petitions to the EPA, the EPA formally objected to the Clean Air Act (CAA) Title V Operating Permits issued by the New Mexico Environment Department for the Frac Cat and Big Lizard Compressor Stations, operated by Lucid Energy Delaware, LLC, in Lea County, New Mexico.

Targas bought Lucid Energy last year for $2.6 billion, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

The EPA objected to these two permits because they failed to comply with the CAA. Specifically, the Agency issued a finding that the New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED’s) Air Quality Bureau failed to demonstrate the operation of the Frac Cat and Big Lizard compressor stations would protect National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for ozone and failed to provide for adequate monitoring of emissions venting.

“The [CAA] expressly requires that where a State fails to respond to an EPA objection within 90 days, the Administrator must issue or deny the Title V Permit in question. 42 U.S.C. Section 7661d(c),” the lawsuit states. “It has been more than 160 days since EPA issued the objection to the Permits for the Frac Cat and Big Lizard compressor stations, yet as of the date of this Complaint, the [NMED] has not responded to the objections and EPA has not issued or denied the Title V Permits for the compressor stations. EPA is therefore in violation of its nondiscretionary duty under the [CAA].”

Timeline and legal allegations

According to the lawsuit, the Frac Cat and Big Lizard compressor stations are each major stationary sources of air pollution located in Lea County. These facilities dehydrate, compress, and route natural gas for pipeline transmission.

Guardians submitted comments to the NMED on the draft operating permits for both compressor stations, raising a number of concerns over the permits’ failure to ensure compliance with the CAA. The NMED rejected Guardians’ comments and submitted the proposed permits to the EPA with no changes.

The EPA’s 45-day review period for the Frac Cat and Big Lizard compressor station permits ended on June 14, 2022, and July 25, 2022, respectively.

Guardians filed petitions requesting that the administrator object to the issuance of the permits for both stations on the basis that the Title V permits:

  • Failed to ensure compliance with CAA Title V permitting requirements for renewal obligations;
  • Failed to ensure compliance with the New Mexico state implementation plan (SIP) and related requirements to protect ambient air quality standards by causing or contributing to exceedances of the NAAQS for ozone; and
  • Failed to require sufficient volatile organic compound (VOC) monitoring to ensure compliance with emissions limits—the monitoring requirements the permit did contain were unenforceable as a practical matter.

On November 16, 2022, the EPA granted in part both of Guardians’ petitions and issued objections to the Title V permits on two of the three points, finding the NMED failed to demonstrate that operation of the compressor stations would protect NAAQS for ozone and failed to provide for adequate monitoring of vented emissions.

Despite the EPA’s ruling, the NMED didn’t address the objections or otherwise submit to the EPA revised permits that resolved the administrator’s objections. At the time of the Guardians lawsuit, it had been more than 160 days since the administrator objected to the permits, and the NMED still hadn’t responded to the objections for either facility.

In accordance with the CAA, the EPA had a nondiscretionary duty to issue or deny the Title V permits upon the NMED’s failure to respond to the objections within 90 days, meaning that by February 14, 2023, the EPA was required to “terminate, modify, or revoke and reissue” the permits but still hasn’t taken such action.

Why it’s important

“Adequate monitoring of oil and gas emissions is vital both for public health and the climate,” said Kate Merlin, Guardians attorney, in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

“Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that has more than 80 times the warming effect as carbon dioxide in a 20-year period,” the Santa Fe New Mexican adds. “Oil operations also emit nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that combine to form ground-level ozone, which can impair breathing and, through prolonged exposure, can damage the heart and lungs.”

“‘This lawsuit is really seeking to hold EPA accountable,’” Merlin continued. “‘For EPA to follow their own regulations, which requires them to take the reins of these permits, since New Mexico has not been willing to do so in a timely manner.  … It’s really a case of New Mexico and EPA dragging their feet when it comes to permitting requirements for oil and gas operators in the Permian.’”

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