Soon the state’s Oil Conservation Division will have the ability to issue civil fines when oil and natural gas industry spills occur. The Oil Conservation Commission approved a final order to amend the state’s release rule during a meeting on Thursday. This unanimous vote came approximately one month after it was discussed and approved during a two-day hearing. The rule change will be printed in the New Mexico Register in August prior to taking effect. The change comes as a result of a petition filed in March by WildEarth Guardians and the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Division, which oversees the OCD, seeking amendments to the release rule.
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.
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.
Conservation and environmental groups are unhappy with the state’s first step towards regulating the use of treated produced water, a toxic waste byproduct of oil and gas activity, outside the oilfield.
The state Oil Conservation Division (OCD), which sits within the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), released a proposed rule amendment in late June to align its produced water regulations with new mandates established in the state Produced Water Act, which was signed into law in 2019. The law established jurisdictional and legal clarity over produced water use in New Mexico and aimed to encourage oil and gas producers to reuse produced water when possible rather than rely on fresh water sources for oil and gas extraction.
As unconventional drilling exploded over the past few years in New Mexico, so has the amount of wastewater being produced. Every barrel of oil generates four to seven barrels of wastewater, of which oil and gas operators must pay to dispose. In 2018 alone, over a billion barrels of wastewater was produced in New Mexico.
Oil and gas operators are having a hard time disposing of that waste, and are increasingly looking for uses for the water outside the oil field. That’s led to a push among some oil-producing states to begin formulating new rules that would allow for produced water to be treated and put to use in other sectors, such as road construction and management, and even irrigation.
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.
At its meeting on Thursday, September 13, the New Mexico Oil Conservation Committee will hear from an energy company that wants to double the density of gas wells in northwestern New Mexico. Hilcorp Energy Company is asking the state to amend well density requirements in what’s called the Blanco-Mesaverde Gas Pool in San Juan and Rio Arriba counties. Under the current rules, companies can drill four wells within the designated 320-acre spacing units, and only two can be drilled within each 160-acre section. Companies can also ask the state to increase the density of wells on a case-by-case basis, something Hilcorp notes in its application New Mexico has allowed it to do in 62 instances this year. Rather than continuing to file individual applications, each with its own public notice and hearing, the company is now asking New Mexico to change the spacing rules for the entire Blanco-Mesaverde pool.
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.
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.
In recent years, spills of crude oil, natural gas and drilling wastewater have increased even more rapidly than production has grown. Yet the state of New Mexico doesn’t fine or sanction oil and gas companies that pollute water. A bill before the state legislature seeks to change that. If passed, the bill wouldn’t create new rules or regulations. Instead, it would allow the state’s Oil Conservation Division (OCD) to impose penalties on polluting companies.