New Mexico regulators grilled over oilfield spills, lack of enforcement

ALBUQUERQUE (N.M.) (AP). -- Environmentalists, who praised New Mexico's approval of regulations adopted nearly two years ago in order to crackdown on oilfield spills, have alleged that the state doesn't do enough to enforce these provisions.

During a meeting on Thursday, they criticized the Oil Conservation Division for the 16% increase of spills from drilling wastewater and other contaminants by 2022. The division, they said, issued eight violations notices for its water rules in the past year.

Increased spills are a result of an oil and natural gas boom in the Permian basin, which includes parts of southeast New Mexico and west Texas. New Mexico has become the nation's No. 2 oil producer due to its production on the New Mexico-side. The U.S. is the second largest oil producer in America.

Environmentalists have told members of the commission overseeing the New Mexico agency there are few consequences for violating pollution regulations and that the failure to enforce them is not held accountable.

Melissa Troutman, from the group WildEarth Guardians, told the commission that if the goal is to increase operator compliance, then what OCD does is not working. The problem is only getting worse. This is not what we expected, after establishing strong rules that were intended to reduce spills and not increase them,' Melissa Troutman, with the group WildEarth Guardians, told the commission.

In response to environmental groups' questions, the agency gave an update on compliance and enforcement. The officials told the commission that they had conducted 31,000 inspections and issued 74 warnings for violations of water rules, environmental hazards and operational issues. They also reported violations and unplugged, inactive wells.

According to Division data, the notices and enforcement action taken in the past year have sought more than $11 Million in civil penalties.

In 2022, as a result, of the inspections performed, the division has issued 2,561 notices to comply with field regulations. More than two thirds of these have been addressed by oil and gas companies.

Environmentalists say that despite the warnings, the consequences won't be enough to deter repeat offenders. The environmentalists also claimed that operators are allowed to report at their discretion, which means state regulators may not always be aware of the amount or type of spillage.

A Friday email message asking for a comment from the agency did not receive a response. Officials stated at the Thursday meeting that they are working to improve reporting, which will show the progress of investigations and the actions operators are taking to comply.

This week, environmentalists sued New Mexico for failing to fulfill its constitutional duty to prevent water and air pollution. The lack of sanctions issued by the oil regulators was cited as an example at the meeting on Thursday.

Federal regulators fined two producers who were working in the basin millions of dollars for violations in emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detected hydrocarbon vapor emissions using a special infrared lens.