Oil and gas companies spilled about 658,000 gallons of oil into New Mexico’s environment last year, along with 657,720 gallons of wastewater, per a recent study.
These pollutants came from a record 1,368 total spills, reported the Center for Western Priorities, which authored the study, along with “billions” of cubic feet of methane released into the air.
That marked an increase from 2020’s total of 1,217 and even more than 1,352 reported in 2019 – a year known for record-high oil production in the state, the study read.
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Spills increased since the Center for Western Priorities began tracking them in New Mexico in 2013, when only 934 were reported.
They peaked in 2014 at 17,66 spills, another year known for an oil boom, and appeared to fluctuate along with growth in production for the next six years.
Data showed previous boom years 2017 and 2018 had 1,522 spills and 1,523 spills, respectively.
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The decline in 2020 was attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, when public health restrictions led to a decline in fuel demand and thus production of fossil fuels.
As demand regrew last year on the heels of the pandemic, so did production and so did reported spills.
New Mexico contains part of the Permian Basin in the southeast corner of the state, the U.S.’ most active oil field producing almost half, about 5 million barrels a day, of the nations about 11.6 million barrel output.
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Upward and downward swings in the global fuel market can have big implications for New Mexico and its environment, and industry critics asserts times of higher production should be tougher oversight on the industry.
Another example of this relationship between production levels and spills was illustrated by Wyoming, the study read, which dropped its oil production by 14 percent last year and spills by 20 percent between 2019 and 2021.
Kate Groetzinger, author of the spill report at the Center for Western Priorities said the industries continued use of public land for extraction should be met by greater attention to preventing spills.
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“As oil companies once again push for more access to public land for drilling, it’s clear the industry still has a way to go to clean up its act,” she said.
“Oil and gas spills routinely impact water wells and communities in the West, while methane gas continues to spew into the atmosphere at a high rate. Residents and regulators should not simply accept this as the cost of doing business.”
New Mexico regulators seek stronger rules to combat oil and gas pollution
In an effort to address pollution from the industry, the State of New Mexico recently adopted new rules both at the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) and New Mexico Environment Department (NMED).
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New regulations included outlawing spills both liquid and gaseous – meaning such events would incur immediate fines even before remediation efforts began – along with increased gas capture standards, emission reporting and retrofitting requirements for equipment at oil and gas facilities to reduce their environmental impact.
EMNRD’s rules, also including a ban on routine flaring – the burning of excess gas – went into effect last spring and NMED’s rules were approved by the Environmental Improvement Board Wednesday and were expected to go into policy this summer.
The emission controls were criticized by oil and gas advocacy groups, despite the industry’s involvement in the rulemaking process as putting a strain on smaller producers who could struggle to meet increase costs of compliance compared with larger, international corporations pumping oil and gas in New Mexico.
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“The Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico (IPANM) believes the goal of the New Mexico ozone precursor methane rule should have been to reduce emissions while preserving well economics and minimizing potential job losses,” said John Winchester, executive director of IPANM.
He maligned the State for removing provisions to allow more flexibility for low-volume or “stripper” wells in complying with the rules.
“IPANM is disappointed by provisions in the final rule that disproportionately target low volume producers, which will lead to premature plugging of still-productive wells that are already environmentally safe and contribute significantly to state revenues,” Winchester said.
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Winchester worried the State’s more restrictive regulations would work in conjunction with potentially tougher federal law to endanger oil and gas production in New Mexico and across the country.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was considering its own set of oil and gas emission controls, potentially allowing the agency to monitor and restrict emissions not only from new, but existing oil and gas sites in all 50 states.
Added government regulation could mean higher energy costs for New Mexicans, Winchester warned, as gas prices were already higher than normal amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that led to the aggressor nation – the second-highest oil producing in the world – being removed from the global market.
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“The combination of these new federal and state oil & gas restrictions will continue to punish New Mexicans at the gas pump, undermine our domestic security, increase our dependency on foreign adversaries at a time when we should be increasing domestic production,” Winchester said.
But environmentalists said increased regulations were needed to address the industry’s pollution and impacts on climate change.
Kayley Shoup, a resident of Carlsbad in the Permian Basin and member of local environmental group Citizens Caring for the Future, said frontline communities such as her own would be safer because of stricter requirements for oil and gas producers.
Methane leaks, venting and flaring are a daily threat to our health, and New Mexico has created a standard to guide federal agencies in strengthening protections from oil and gas pollution,” Shoup said.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.