Environmentalists who had praised the approval of rules adopted by New Mexico nearly two years ago to crack down on oilfield spills have alleged the state isn’t doing enough to enforce the provisions.
They criticized the Oil Conservation Division during a meeting Thursday, pointing to a 16% increase in spills of wastewater from the drilling process and other contaminants in 2022. They said the division issued only eight notices of violations of its water rules last year.
The increase in spills comes amid an oil and gas boom in the Permian Basin, which spans parts of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. Production on the New Mexico side has resulted in the state becoming the No. 2 oil producer in the U.S.
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The environmentalists told members of a commission that oversees the New Mexico agency that there appears to be few consequences for companies that violate pollution rules and no accountability for the lack of enforcement.
“If the aim is operator compliance, clearly what OCD is doing isn’t working because the problem is getting worse,” Melissa Troutman with the group WildEarth Guardians told the commission. “This is, of course, not the result we expected after creating strong rules, which were meant to decrease spills, not increase them.”
The agency provided the update on compliance and enforcement in response to questions from the environmental groups. Officials told the commission they conducted about 31,000 inspections last year and issued 74 notices in all for water rule violations, environmental hazards, operational issues, reporting violations and unplugged inactive wells.
The notices and enforcement actions taken over the last year seek more than $11 million in civil penalties, according to division data.
As a result of inspections done in 2022, the division issued 2,561 field compliance notices, and oil and gas operators took actions to address more than two-thirds of those.
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Despite the notices, environmentalists said the consequences aren’t enough to dissuade repeat offenders. They also said operators have discretion when reporting, meaning state regulators don’t always know what or how much has been spilled.
An email message seeking comment from the state agency was not returned Friday. Officials said during Thursday’s meeting that the division is working on improving reporting that will show the status of investigations and what actions are being taken by operators to come into compliance.
Environmentalists challenged New Mexico in court earlier this week, alleging that the state was failing to meet its constitutional duties to prevent air and water pollution. Those at Thursday’s meeting cited the lack of penalties being issued by oil regulators as an example.
Earlier this year, federal regulators leveled millions of dollars in fines against two producers working in the basin for emissions violations. Those sanctions came after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency used a special infrared camera to detect emissions of hydrocarbon vapors.
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