Last year in the area near Orogrande in Otero County, a motorcyclist was killed when he ended up in an abandoned mine, according to Jerry Schoeppner, the Mining and Minerals Division director for the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. Abandoned hard rock mine sites throughout the state can create dangerous conditions for people and the environment, but the funding that the Mining and Minerals Division relies on to clean up these sites is limited and will expire in September. Additionally, the state does not know exactly how many mines are located in New Mexico. Schoeppner is hopeful that the funding will be reauthorized and that New Mexico could even possibly see an increase in funding.
A $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill introduced in Congress this week would, if passed, ensure funding for the mine cleanup for the next 15 years. Additionally, it would provide the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund with about $11.3 billion, which would be divided between states and tribal nations.
Following concerns from members of the environmental community, the New Mexico Environment Department removed the exemptions from the oil and gas sector ozone precursor rule for stripper and marginal wells. The department released the ozone precursor rule Thursday and filed a petition with the Environmental Improvement Board to review it. A public hearing is anticipated this fall. If approved by the seven-member board, the rules would likely go into effect in early 2022. It is intended to work in conjunction with a methane waste rule that the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department already finalized.
At the end of their useful life, every oil and gas well must be plugged to prevent future contamination as the infrastructure ages and to return the site back to its original state. For the most part, this is done by the operator. However, sometimes bankruptcies lead to wells becoming orphaned, meaning there is no operator to plug them.
Officials say these wells tend to not have had great maintenance and cleaning them up is important to protect both the environment and the health of nearby communities. Democratic Senator Ben Ray Luján says he plans to introduce legislation to clean up orphaned oil and gas wells. This comes as President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for spending $16 billion to plug abandoned wells and mines.
Mario Atencio, an activist from the Greater Chaco region of New Mexico, said the methane waste rule adopted by the Oil Conservation Commission on Thursday will set energy production in New Mexico on a path trending toward fairness. Atencio’s community in the Counselor Chapter of Navajo Nation is among the poorest in the state and, he said, it has long borne the impacts of oil and gas emissions. He is hopeful that the methane waste rule will significantly decrease emissions impacting his community. The Oil Conservation Commission, which falls under the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, unanimously approved the final language of the new rule for venting and flaring of natural gas during its meeting and the commissioners expressed pride in the final language.
The methane waste rule requires 98 percent of the methane from oil and gas operations to be captured by 2026, although it leaves the companies with the flexibility to use a variety of technology to meet those goals. Work on the methane waste rule began in 2019 following an executive order from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
New Mexico’s environmental and oil and gas regulators are facing budget cuts for the next fiscal year, as nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic and a significant downturn in the oil market has depleted the state’s budget.
The budget reductions come after years of attrition in regulatory budgets under the Susana Martinez administration. The New Mexico Environment Department’s budget was cut by 32 percent between fiscal years (FY) 2012 and 2019, which was the last fiscal year budget passed by the legislature in 2018 before Martinez left office, according to a report released by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. The Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) saw its budget drop roughly 24 percent under the Martinez administration between fiscal years 2012 and 2019.
In Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s first budget proposal for FY2020, NMED’s general fund increased 6 percent compared to FY2019, while EMNRD saw a 9 percent increase in fiscal year 2020 over 2019. The departments saw similar increases in the FY2021 budget. But some of that progress will be reversed as the state grapples with the fiscal ramifications of a nearly year-long public health emergency and an oil boom bust.
NMED to cut back on some services
NMED submitted a $89.2 million budget request for fiscal year 2022.
Some state legislators are concerned about the possible revenue implications of a proposed rule aimed at reducing methane waste in oil and gas operations. The state’s Legislative Finance Committee, a committee made up of members of both the House and Senate that considers priorities for the state budget ahead of the January session, is gearing up for a tough year financially for the state after the COVID-19 pandemic and an unrelated but simultaneous bust in the oil market has ravished state coffers.
“The state is in, in my terms, dire financial straits, because of income,” said Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo. “We are in a time right now where income to the state is down, oil and gas revenues are down. The timing sometimes is not always the best and so I think hopefully that will come into consideration before we finally apply these rules.”
The state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) proposed methane rule would require all oil and gas operators in the state to reduce their methane waste by a fixed amount every single year, starting in 2022, to reach the 98 percent gas capture rate by the end of 2026.
RELATED: As methane rulemaking progresses, questions about exemptions linger
EMNRD Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst told lawmakers during a recent Legislative Finance Committee meeting that the department’s proposal “will yield an additional $10 billion a year in revenue to the state for wasted resources” that would otherwise be lost. Cottrell Propst called the $10 billion a “low-end estimate.”
But several lawmakers on the committee worried the new regulations would threaten some of the state’s oil and gas operators during the downturn.
A produced water pipe located across the street from her Carlsbad-area home burst in mid-January, drenching her house and yard with the toxic water for an hour before it was shut off. In the aftermath, Aucoin was forced to euthanize 18 chickens and one dog, and give up her remaining goat. A county official told her she couldn’t eat her chicken eggs, couldn’t eat their meat, and said she probably shouldn’t eat anything grown on her property, either.
The operator responsible for the spill, WPX, attributed the incident to equipment failure. The company removed 25 cubic yards of topsoil from the property, and paid for a third-party contractor to treat the remaining soil.
Aucoin’s life has changed dramatically since the incident. What’s left of her yard is basically useless.
The New Mexico Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department released their respective draft rules targeting methane emissions and ozone precursor pollutants Monday. EMNRD Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst called the draft rules “pre-proposals” ahead of the official rulemaking process that’s slated to take place in the fall.
“We felt it was very important for the public and the regulated community and anyone to be able to take a look at draft regulatory language side by side from our departments and give us feedback,” Cottrell Propst said during a press conference Tuesday morning.
The draft rules are the culmination of nearly a year of work by the state’s Methane Advisory Panel, which was composed of oil and gas representatives, environmental groups and other stakeholders. Cottrell Propst said the process had been “incredibly collaborative” with stakeholders and said the two departments looked at other states’ methane rules in developing their own.
EMNRD’s 2-phase rule
EMNRD’s proposed draft rule, which Cottrell Propst described as an umbrella regulation, would roll out in two phases. The first phase would involve data collection and “robust” reporting from oil and gas operators in the state’s two oil-producing basins.
“We know that having accurate data is really important for establishing meaningful baselines and enforceable goals to reduce natural gas waste,” Cottrell Propst said. “Historically, the industry has not reported consistent and complete data for venting and flaring to us.
To Nathalie Eddy’s eye, Loco Hills has become “a graveyard” of oil and gas development.
Eddy is the Colorado and New Mexico field advocate at the environmental group Earthworks. Eddy works frequently in the Permian Basin, using special imaging cameras to capture methane leaks coming from oil and gas wells sites in the area.
Loco Hills, located north of Carlsbad on the Lovington Highway, is a legacy oilfield whose landscape is now dotted with inactive wells, and a few wells still producing, stretching as far as the eye can see. Most of those defunct wells are located on state or federal public lands and they aren’t going away anytime soon. The area “offers a sobering glimpse of drilling’s irreversible damage that scars these public lands and makes the land unavailable for any future use for future generations,” Eddy told NM Political Report.
There is concern that other parts of the Permian Basin may suffer a similar fate. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Carlsbad field office was considered the busiest in the country last year, thanks to record levels of oil and gas production in the Permian Basin.
A recent incident involving the alleged dumping of produced water on state lands has highlighted the difficulties state regulators face in holding oil producers accountable to illegal dumping.
“If we don’t have proof of it happening, it’s very hard to move forward with a violation,” Adrienne Sandoval, director of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s Oil Conservation Division, told NM Political Report.
A rancher alerted the OCD in early March of an incident in which the rancher believed produced water was being dumped on state trust lands and a road in Lea County.
“Luckily it was caught by someone locally,” Sandoval said, adding that the individual “took recordings of it while it was occurring.”
A month later, the OCD issued administrative civil penalties to two companies involved in the incident: the oil producer Advanced Energy Partners Hat Mesa, LLC and a New Mexico-based trucking company named Windmill Trucking. AEP Hat Mesa has a contract with Windmill Trucking for hauling fresh water and produced water to and from oil rigs.
“The trucking company is required to have authorization from us and permits in order to haul this water. It is the operator’s responsibility to ensure the people they are contracting with have the appropriate credentials. That’s why they’re both receiving violations,” Sandoval said.
The OCD fined AEP $7,600 and fined Windmill Trucking $8,700 — the first fines OCD has issued since it regained its ability to collect fines earlier this year.
RELATED: Oil Conservation Division can enforce oil regulations for first time in a decade
“Those are just initial numbers,” Sandoval said. “After we issue the initial notice of violation, they have the option of either having a settlement conference or going to a hearing.