May 12, 2023

Environmental activists say not enough is being done to protect from pollution, including oil spills

Hannah Grover

An overflowing container is seen at a well site on March 23 in the Horseshoe Gallup field in San Juan County.

Environmental advocates told members of the Oil Conservation Commission that state regulators are not adequately enforcing rules designed to protect New Mexicans from pollution.

The commission heard a presentation on the Oil Conservation Division’s enforcement actions  taken prior to the public comments on Thursday. The advocacy group Youth United for Climate Crisis Action requested the presentation. YUCCA sent questions to the OCD that the members hoped would be answered.

Brandon Powell, the Oil Conservation Division’s deputy director, said there is some misunderstanding about what the OCD does. He said the OCD manages the rights or leases, but the mineral rights are owned by various entities including the Bureau of Land Management, the State Land Office and private parties. He said the decision to lease those mineral rights is made by the owners of the rights.

Further, Powell said the OCD does not regulate emissions. That role belongs to the New Mexico Environment Department. 

He compared the OCD to a building inspector.

“Building inspectors don’t own the homes or create the plans,” he said. “OCD doesn’t own the wells or create plans of development for the operators. Homeowners must have the proper permits for construction and follow the applicable regulations. OCD requires operators to receive permits for their facilities and establishes those operational requirements.”

He said building inspectors don’t dictate how a home is designed, but rather ensure that the home is up to code. In the same way, Powell said the OCD ensures that operators’ plans are up to code prior to drilling, during drilling and during the subsequent production.

Powell discussed the number of notices of violation that the OCD has issued.

Environmental advocates who spoke after the presentation were particularly concerned that only eight notices of violation have been issued for spills when, in 2022, there were more than 1,400 spills.

Melissa Troutman, the climate and energy advocate for WildEarth Guardians, said that the OCD and WildEarth Guardians worked together to create a rule that prohibits unauthorized releases of oil, gasses, produced water, oil-filled waste and other contaminants. She said this rule is necessary because spills pose risks to public health and the environment and can lead to groundwater and soil contamination.

“After hearing OCD’s presentation on enforcement today, I’ve got to say we’re really disappointed,” she said.

Troutman said that after the Oil Conservation Commission unanimously voted in favor of the rule, which went into effect in 2021, WildEarth Guardians has been waiting for the OCD to use the new rule “to rein in the rampant pollution from spills across the state.”

But, instead, she said the OCD has only issued a handful of notices of violations for reporting and remediation issues. She said there haven’t been any penalties assessed to oil and gas companies for spills despite the record-number of spills that occurred last year.

The meeting came one day after environmental activists, including YUCCA and WildEarth Guardians, filed a lawsuit against the state, including the Oil Conservation Commission, alleging that New Mexico has failed in its constitutional duty to ensure a healthy and beautiful environment that isn’t despoiled by pollution.