On a late March weekend, State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard headed out to the Permian Basin, to visit oil wells on state trust lands. These are wells that churn out profits for corporations, build up the state’s general fund from taxes and royalties and send money to schools and hospitals. Looking through a special camera that detects emissions of volatile organic compounds, Garcia Richard also saw that the wells are sending methane and other pollutants into the air. “There are seemingly innocuous pieces of equipment, tanks, pipes, and then you look at it with the FLIR camera and you can see these clouds of emissions,” the commissioner said. “We went to some older operations, some newer operations, some [wells operated] by some smaller companies, some by larger companies.”
Last week, Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham started announcing appointments to top spots in state government. Among the positions she announced was her choice for secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), Sarah Cottrell Propst. Most recently, Propst worked as executive director of Interwest Energy Alliance, a nonprofit trade association of renewable energy companies in six western states, including New Mexico. During the administration of Gov. Bill Richardson, Propst served as his energy and environment advisor, and then as deputy secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). She came to New Mexico after earning a master’s degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, presented a bill to the Senate Conservation Committee Thursday that would restore a state agency’s ability to penalize oil and gas companies that pollute water. Senate Bill 307 would also increase those penalties, which haven’t been updated since the Legislature passed the Oil and Gas Act of 1935. During his presentation to the committee, Martinez pointed out the timeliness of the bill as the Trump administration has emphasized, he said, the “need to shift power to states.” If passed and signed into law, SB 307 would “ensure we meet the federal government’s standards for New Mexico to be in charge of its oil and gas programs,” he said. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can authorize states to take over certain regulatory duties. Under that program, states must be able to assess penalties against companies that pollute water.
Governor Susana Martinez announced her new pick for secretary of the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. The department’s new secretary-designate, Ken McQueen, retired as San Juan vice president from WPX Energy earlier this year. That energy company has rights to lease about 100,000 acres of federal, state and Navajo allottee lands in the San Juan Basin and has drilled more than 100 oil wells in recent years along the Highway 550 corridor near Lybrook and Counselor. It also operates wells across the highway from Lybrook Elementary School. Drilling activity in the basin has stalled since the downturn in oil and gas prices.