March 14, 2017

Oil and gas penalty bill passes committee

Laura Paskus

Oil pumps in southeastern New Mexico

Monday night, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill to restore the state Oil Conservation Division’s ability to penalize oil and gas companies that pollute water. If passed by the Legislature, Senate Bill 307 would also increase those penalties, which haven’t been updated since the Oil and Gas Act of 1935.

Related story: Bill to bring back oil and gas pollution penalty moves forward

The committee passed the bill by a vote of 6-3, with Republican Sen. Ron Griggs, Alamogordo, joining Democrats in voting to advance the bill.

Like when the bill moved through the Senate Conservation Committee earlier in the session, during last night’s meeting, environmental groups stood in support of the bill while energy lobbyists opposed it.

This time, however, representatives from the Oil Conservation Division attended the meeting, answering a question raised by a committee member and speaking in support of the bill.

SB 307 would be “an important tool” to help the division achieve compliance from the oil and gas industry, said OCD Director David Catanach.

OCD is part of the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

Related story: Climate change part of debate over energy head’s confirmation

Laura Paskus

Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española

The bill did include a number of amendments, all friendly to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española. One of those, proposed by Griggs, removed language that would have allowed cases to be heard in the First Judicial District.

Under the bill’s original language, cases could have been heard in the counties where violations occurred or in Santa Fe, closer to OCD’s offices and the Office of the Attorney General. Griggs was concerned that the court in Santa Fe would be the preferred option for activist groups. Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, agreed that “jurisdiction shopping” could occur.

With only five days left in the session, the bill’s sponsor still has obstacles to clear.

But Mary Feldblum, a lobbyist with Earthworks, said Martinez will try to have the bill released from its next committee, Senate Finance, so it can be heard on the Senate floor.

It would still need to clear the state House before going to Gov. Susana Martinez for final approval.