Penny Aucoin and her husband Carl George were awoken in the early hours of Tuesday morning by the sound of a loud pop and gushing water. “We went out and it was dark at 2:30 in the morning. But when we walked outside we were getting rained on and it smelled like gas — it smelled strongly of gas,” Aucoin said as she recounted the events of the night to NM Political Report. “I said, ‘Honey, where’s it coming from?’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know!’ So he was using his flashlight on his phone trying to figure out where it was coming from.”
The “rain,” it turned out, was produced water, a fluid byproduct of oil and gas extraction activities, spewing from a broken pipe across the street. The water pressure was so high in the pipe that the produced water rained down on the family’s home, livestock and yard a good 200 yards away.
The woman who is challenging the state’s Speaker of the House for his seat in this year’s elections began the first of seven days of fasting and public engagement on the steps of the Roundhouse in Santa Fe Monday. Lyla June Johnston, who will face Santa Fe Democrat Brian Egolf in the Democratic primary, will be unveiling the pillars of her seven-point “Seven Generations New Deal” platform each day of the “Fast for the Future” event. The campaign is focused heavily on addressing the climate crisis and protecting the planet for future generations. “It’s a seven day fast because we want policy to support the next seven generations. It’s a very long-view policy outlook,” Johnston told NM Political Report, something she believes is missing from our current political leadership.
The state agency charged with regulating the oil and gas industry can once again enforce those rules by imposing penalties. The Oil Conservation Division (OCD), a division of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), adopted a new rule Thursday which enables the OCD to assess penalties to oil and gas producers operating in the state for violations of New Mexico’s Oil and Gas Act. It’s the first time the OCD has had the authority to impose fines for violations since 2009. The rule change stemmed from the Fluid Oil and Gas Waste Act — also known as the Produced Water Act — which passed during the 2019 legislative session. A provision of that bill enshrined into law the OCD’s ability to assess monetary penalties between $2,500 to $10,000 to oil and gas producers in violation of state law of, depending on the nature and severity of the violation.
Located just a half-mile from the Village of San Mateo, Mount Taylor can be seen rising from the San Mateo mountains 100 miles in any direction. The mountain, whose peak stretches nearly 12,000 feet upward, sits east of Grants and has long been considered a place of cultural and spiritual significance. Mount Taylor is a pilgrimage destination for at least 30 indigenous communities, including the Navajo Nation, the Hopi and Zuni peoples, and the Acoma and Laguna Pueblos. The mountain is one of the four sacred mountains that make up the boundaries of the Dinétah land. It holds special significance for the Acoma people, where streams on the mountain feed into the Rio San Jose, one of the pueblo’s primary water sources.
But Mount Taylor also sits atop one of the country’s largest uranium deposits, and was mined for decades.
The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) will not complete a programmatic study for environmental impacts of increased plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Labs (LANL) and one other lab located in South Carolina. The decision to not do so drew criticism from Nuclear Watch NM and other groups, who argue such assessments are required by law under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and an existing court order. Plutonium pits are the radioactive cores of nuclear warheads where the chemical reactions occur that cause the warhead to detonate. The U.S. made thousands of cores during the Cold War, but pit production has all but stopped in the last thirty years. Now, the federal government is getting ready to ramp up pit production in order to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and “assure the nation has a safe, secure and credible deterrent,” said Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the Department of Energy Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and the NNSA Administrator, in a statement.
The U.S. Department of Interior dealt a major blow to the Gila River diversion project last month. The New Mexico Central Arizona Project (NMCAP) Entity will have to find new funds for the proposal after the DOI denied a request for an extension for a funding application. The NMCAP Entity requested an extension on the deadline for filing documents to support its application for up to $56 million in construction funding for the project that’s available under the Arizona Water Settlement Act of 2004. The NMCAP Entity had until the end of December 2019 to complete the necessary environment impact statements and receive a federal Record of Decision. It has spent $17 million so far on the project.
The Permian Basin became the world’s most productive oilfield in 2019, and New Mexico is reaping the financial benefits. The state saw a significant revenue surge this year, resulting in a projected $7.8 billion collected.
The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association estimates the state produces 900,000 barrels of oil a day. It anticipates the state will surpass 300 million barrels of oil in 2019, the third year in a row for the state for record-setting production. Projections from the state’s Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) predict the state could see over $900 million in new money in 2020, due in large part of growing oil and gas royalties generated in 2019. Oil and gas now makes up 40 percent of the state’s budget.
After a revelatory Department of Defense report in 2018 identified 126 military bases where firefighting training activities had contaminated groundwater sources, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) issued two notices of violation against the Air Force over PFAS groundwater contamination at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases. PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are toxic, human-manufactured chemicals that move through groundwater and biological systems. Human exposure to PFAS increases the risk of testicular, kidney and thyroid cancers as well as other severe illnesses. The chemicals were used in firefighting foam in military installations across the country. In January, the U.S. Air Force responded to the first notice of violation for contamination at Cannon Air Force Base with a lawsuit against the state, challenging NMED’s authority to compel PFAS cleanup under the state permit. A month later, NMED issued a second notice for groundwater contamination at Holloman, where PFAS contamination levels in some areas were found to be 18,000 times the federal “lifetime” drinking water exposure advisory levels for the chemicals.
When Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the Energy Transition Act into law in March, she called the law “transformational” and “a really big deal.”
“The Energy Transition Act fundamentally changes the dynamic in New Mexico. This legislation is a promise to future generations of New Mexicans, who will benefit from both a cleaner environment and a more robust energy economy with exciting career and job opportunities,” she said at the time in a statement. But the first attempt to implement the new law hasn’t been smooth. The investor-owned utility PNM announced in 2017 that it planned to close the San Juan Generating Station, a coal-fired plant located outside Farmington. But PNM didn’t formally submit to the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) its consolidated application for abandonment, securitization and replacement power for the power plant until July 2019, weeks after the Energy Transition Act had been signed into law.
The U.S. has oscillated from being the largest economy to participate in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change to becoming one of the world’s strongest voices promoting the continued burning of coal and other fossil fuels. New Mexico has had a front row seat to that change, of course. In 2019, the Permian Basin became the world’s most productive oilfield, and New Mexico has emerged as a top oil-producing state.
Oil and gas expansion across New Mexico and Texas will be a chief driver of future greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to a recent report compiled by 15 global environmental groups that was released ahead of the U.N. climate-focused COP25 conference held in Madrid this year.
“Right now, the Permian Basin is the biggest projected driver of oil and gas expansion — not just in the U.S. but in the world,” said Kelly Trout, senior research analyst at Oil Change International, a research and advocacy group. Trout was a contributor to the report.
“Our data shows that the potential year of peak production for the Permian Basin in 2032,” Trout said. “The Permian Basin itself could produce more oil and natural gas liquids than Saudi Arabia [at that time].”
U.S. outpaces all other countries in planned oil and gas expansion
The U.S. is poised to outpace every other country in the world in new oil and gas development, according to the report.
The Office of the State Engineer awarded the state’s first water rights permit to keep water in a river. The office granted the permit to Audubon New Mexico for a stretch of the Gallina River near Abiquiu. Riparian areas, including rivers, streams and wetlands, account for just 1 percent of the New Mexico landscape, and have been stressed by decades of drought and a warming climate. A recent World Resources Institute study ranked New Mexico as the most water-stressed area in the United States. Surface water rights in the state are typically granted to individuals for diverting water from streams and rivers to irrigate crops and support food production.