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NM Legislation Requires More Accountability from Oil, Gas Industry

A bill to impose larger fines on New Mexico oil and gas producers will be heard next in the House Judiciary Committee. (Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter)
A bill to impose larger fines on New Mexico oil and gas producers will be heard next in the House Judiciary Committee. (Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter)
February 27, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. - Oil and gas production may be New Mexico's biggest economic driver, but supporters of legislation at the Roundhouse say the companies need to be held accountable when they create spills or discharge excessive methane.

Fines for such violations have not been comprehensively enforced since the state Supreme Court ruled that the Oil Conservation Division doesn't have the authority.

Beyond the environmental impact, said Senate Bill 186 co-sponsor Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, it's an issue of fairness.

"What this does is, it levels the playing field, because we probably have some operators who are good operators and are following the law, and maybe we have some who are cutting corners," he said. "And if they're getting a competitive advantage by cutting corners, that's not really fair. I mean, that shouldn't be happening."

Opponents of the bill have warned that oil and gas production and jobs need equal consideration to any money that might be collected from fines.

A report by the Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project showed that oil and gas infractions are up 100 percent since 2008. At the same time, no money was collected in fines in New Mexico last year.

Earthworks found the leading cause of spills was from equipment failure, from split hoses to broken pumps that can release polluted water. Bill Midcap, director of renewable energy for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, said the lack of enforcement negatively affects communities and the environment.

"There's never been proper oversight of the oil and gas industry in New Mexico," he said, "so I think a lot of the folks that are farming and ranching in New Mexico are looking forward to further regulations, including stiffer penalties for those that do not clean up their mistakes."

James Therrien is the pastor of a ministry near Chaco Canyon, where most of the federal land has been leased for oil and gas development.

"The oil companies seem to do whatever they want to do, because they're not from here. If they were from this area, they would probably have a little more respect for the people and for the land," he said. "I think that this would be the beginning of some accountability and maybe put some of the companies back in line where they need to be."

The proposed legislation would increase fines to up to $15,000 a day for each violation.

The text of SB 186 is online at nmlegis.gov.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - NM