Groups call on legislators to cap environmental budget cuts at 3 percent

As state legislators convene in Santa Fe for a special session to tackle the budget, environmental groups are asking lawmakers to limit cuts to the state’s environmental regulatory agency budgets to 3 percent. 

A group of 28 organizations, ranging from conservation and wildlife advocates to renewable energy proponents, sent a letter to members of the state Senate Finance Committee and the state House Financial Affairs Committee last week. 

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) — the state’s two main environmental regulatory departments — each saw their respective budgets erode during the Susana Martinez administration. 

NMED’s general fund 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. 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, which goes into effect on July 1 and will be amended during the special session due to the COVID-19 caused economic slowdown and dropping oil and gas prices. 

“The 2021 budget saw about a 7 percent increase for those agencies from 2020,” said Ben Shelton, policy and political director at Conservation New Mexico, and who coordinated the letter. “What we’re trying to do is hold that reduction in increase as low as possible.”  

While the recent budget increases are steps in the right direction, the departments’ budgets are still much lower than they were at the end of Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration in 2011. 

“These guys got cuts in the Martinez administration where they got cut below what they needed to do the minimum of their jobs — particularly EMNRD,” Shelton said. 

Both departments are suffering from high vacancy rates as a result. NMED has a 19 percent vacancy rate, with only seven inspectors in charge of monitoring 7,700 air emitting sources, two inspectors in charge of monitoring 700 groundwater sources, and seven inspectors for monitoring nearly 3,000 hazardous waste sources. 

EMNRD’s Oil Conservation District (OCD), which regulates oil and gas activities in the state, had its budget decline 26 percent under the Martinez administration. The OCD is responsible for oil and gas regulatory activities ranging from permitting new wells, inspecting abandoned wells, ensuring compliance with permits, and enforcing the state’s oil and gas rules.

While state grapples with new methane rules, EPA wants to end some methane emissions limits all together

The EPA’s newly proposed methane regulation revisions drew criticism from oil and gas companies and environmentalists alike and spurred some groups in New Mexico to redouble efforts to pressure state officials adopt more stringent rules for methane emissions in the state. Last week, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler proposed updates to federal air quality regulations for the oil and gas industry that would remove limits on methane emissions from production and processing operations and would remove regulations all together for methane emissions coming from transmission and storage sources of oil and gas production. The proposed rule changes will “save the industry millions of dollars in compliance costs each year,” the EPA said, “while maintaining health and environmental regulations on oil and gas sources that the agency considers appropriate.”

“EPA’s proposal delivers on President Trump’s executive order and removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Since 1990, natural gas production in the United States has almost doubled while methane emissions across the natural gas industry have fallen by nearly 15%. Our regulations should not stifle this innovation and progress.”

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall described the proposed changes as a “backwards move in face of climate crisis,” in a statement released last week. 

“EPA’s decision today is an affront to New Mexicans and people across this country who have a right to clean air.

EPA appoints former NM EMNRD secretary to head Region 6

A former secretary for New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) will head the EPA’s Region 6. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler tapped Ken McQueen to oversee environmental protection for New Mexico, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas along with 66 Tribal Nations. McQueen, who is a climate change denier and former oil executive, is the latest Trump administration appointee whose track record appears to be at odds with his new position. “Ken’s experience in public service and familiarity with natural resource issues make him an excellent choice to lead the Region 6 office,” Wheeler said in a statement announcing the selection. McQueen’s industry experience in oil and gas far outweighs his public service.

Feds release Copper Flat Mine analysis

Outside the town of Hillsboro, N.M., remains of the Copper Flat Mine are visible down a graded gravel road off Highway 152. A white pickup truck moves along in the distance. And there are a couple of buildings and a small electric line. The mine operated for just a few months before closing in July 1982. But a new company hopes to reopen it on 2,190 acres of federal and private land, and put to use water rights it says date back decades.

EPA, state agencies want public input on drilling wastewater report

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of New Mexico released a draft report on Friday about the possibility of someday reusing or recycling wastewater from the oil and gas industry. According to the draft white paper compiled by the EPA and three state agencies, “Given that drought is no stranger to New Mexico, decisions about water are growing ever more complicated and meaningful.”

This summer, the EPA and three New Mexico agencies convened a working group to understand and clarify existing regulatory and permitting frameworks and create a road map toward finding other uses for wastewater generated by oil and gas drilling. The draft report lays out various possible reuse scenarios, explains which agencies would be involved in permitting and regulations and parses some of the legal issues. As the authors note, New Mexico became the third-largest oil producing state in the U.S. in 2018 and the industry produces enormous quantities of wastewater.  According to the report:
For every barrel of oil, four or five barrels of produced water may be generated: an estimated 168 to 210 gallons of produced water for every 42 gallons of oil produced.

Transparency concerns about oilfield water reuse plans met with silence

As state agencies move forward with plans to study reusing wastewater from oil and gas drilling, some environmental and community groups want the administration to slow down. They’re concerned about the working group’s quick schedule and lack of transparency thus far on an issue they say demands careful study. This summer, New Mexico signed an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and formed a working group to figure out how wastewater might be reused within the oilfield itself—and someday, beyond it. As we reported last month, the state initiated the process with the EPA. Following the publication of that story, representatives from more than 15 environmental and community groups signed onto a letter to the EPA which said the agreement between the federal agency and the state violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) and requesting the federal agency withdraw.

NM officials consider options to reuse oilfield water

When drilling wells, operators inject chemicals, sand and water underground to create fissures that help move oil and natural gas to the wellhead more efficiently. That practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses a lot of water. And it leaves behind a lot of water, too. In 2015, even before the Permian Basin really started booming, industry produced 900 million barrels of wastewater. That’s about 116,000 acre feet—or almost all of the water currently stored in Elephant Butte Reservoir.

Report: Drilling spills down in 2016

Oil and gas companies reported fewer toxic spills in New Mexico last year than in 2015. According to the Center for Western Priorities’ 2016 Spill Tracker, companies reported 1,310 spills in 2016. Most of those occurred in Lea and Eddy counties, the site of most drilling activity in the state. The nonpartisan group’s Spill Tracker is based on publicly-available records from New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division, which is within the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. According to the Spill Tracker, five companies were responsible for nearly 40 percent of all spills of crude oil, natural gas and produced water.

Climate change part of debate over energy head’s confirmation

Even as temperatures rise in the southwestern United States and across the globe, climate change doesn’t often grab the interest of many New Mexico’s state legislators. But during the Senate’s confirmation of Ken McQueen as secretary of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department the issue came up repeatedly, both in the Senate Rules Committee and later in the day on the Senate floor. Nominated in December by Gov. Susana Martinez, McQueen retired last year as San Juan vice president from WPX Energy. McQueen spent nearly four decades in the oil and gas business and worked taught Petroleum Engineering at the University of Tulsa. Related story: Over objections, New Mexico energy chief confirmed

His former employer, WPX Energy, has the rights to lease about 100,000 acres of federal, state and Navajo allottee lands in the San Juan Basin for oil and gas production and has drilled more than 100 oil wells in recent years along the Highway 550 corridor.

Over objections, New Mexico energy chief confirmed

After his confirmation hearing turned to discussion of climate change and the Four Corners methane hotspot on Wednesday, environmental groups lambasted Mew Mexico’s top oil and gas regulator as echoing politically conservative talking points while one legislator described the conversation as “very troubling.” But despite opposition from conservationists and a small group of Democratic lawmakers, the state Senate voted 32-4 to confirm former oil and gas industry executive Kenley McQueen as secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. While McQueen won praise from some lawmakers as having an expert grasp on the sector he is now in charge of policing, environmental groups have likened his appointment to picking a fox to guard a hen house, prompting some of the harshest opposition that any of Gov. Susana Martinez’s appointees have met so far in the current legislative session. Related: Climate change part of debate over energy head’s confirmation

The secretary’s confirmation hearing on Wednesday only seemed to enflame criticism from liberal senators. “What I heard today was very troubling,” Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said later on the Senate floor.