July 9, 2021

State Oil Conservation Division can issue fines for spills

Margaret Wright

Oil pump in southeast New Mexico.

Soon the state’s Oil Conservation Division will have the ability to issue civil fines when oil and natural gas industry spills occur. The Oil Conservation Commission approved a final order to amend the state’s release rule during a meeting on Thursday.

This unanimous vote came approximately one month after it was discussed and approved during a two-day hearing. The rule change will be printed in the New Mexico Register in August prior to taking effect.

The change comes as a result of a petition filed in March by WildEarth Guardians and the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Division, which oversees the OCD, seeking amendments to the release rule.

Currently, spills are permissible and the OCD is only able to penalize the operators if they fail to report a spill. Those spills include oil, gas, produced water, oil field waste and other contaminants.

The rule change will give the OCD increased authority to take enforcement actions, such as levying civil penalties, against operators when spills occur and will prohibit both major and minor spills.

“The vote today will give EMNRD’s Oil Conservation Division another tool to uphold our statutory authority to protect human health and the environment,” EMNRD Cabinet Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst said in a press release. “Multiple stakeholders came together to finalize this common-sense change that will benefit New Mexicans, another example of this administration’s commitment to collaboration and problem-solving.”

Proponents hope that the rule changes will reduce the number of spills. Industry groups who weighed in during a June hearing said they were not opposed to the change but they did express concerns about the civil penalties, especially in terms of spills that cannot be prevented through proactive measures. These spills can occur because of factors like weather or vandalism, they said.

During a ten year period of time from 2010 to 2020, there were about 12,000 spills. The majority of these were produced water spills, however approximately 4,000 involved crude oil, according to testimony from the June hearing.

Rebecca Sobel, an energy campaigner for WildEarth Guardians, described the decision as a “no-brainer” for the OCC. 

“They either choose to make spills illegal or deny the request and acknowledge that the oil and gas industry cannot operate without fundamentally despoiling our environment and jeopardizing public health and safety,” she said in an email to NM Political Report. “Right now, the oil and gas industry is spilling more than 4 times a day in New Mexico. Unfortunately, OCD is woefully underfunded and understaffed to enforce oil and gas regulations, and until the Governor commits to meaningful efforts to transition New Mexico away from an energy sacrifice zone and diversify our economy, industry will continue its stranglehold on our politics and our livelihoods.”