The Oil Conservation Commission on Thursday approved a rule change that will ban drillers from spilling oil and toxic liquids – an amendment that activists and affected residents say would help prevent pollution from occurring.
The rule will be adopted on July 8.
The state’s petroleum conservation division, which regulates oil and gas activity, has partnered with environmental group WildEarth Guardians to propose the rule change. Environmentalists, community activists, regulators and industry groups have all backed it up.
New Mexico had no rule prohibiting operators from spilling petroleum or “produced water,” the toxic liquid by-product of hydraulic fracturing.
Instead, companies were required to report a spill and then work with regulators to clean it up. Critics have called the system grossly inadequate – especially in a state with one of the country’s largest fossil fuel industries – saying it is reactive rather than preventive.
“It’s a big deal,” said Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program for WildEarth Guardian. “We want to make sure that the industry has an incentive to prevent these releases from happening in the first place.”
The new rule will give the division more power to impose penalties on violators.
“We hope the Petroleum Conservation Division uses this new authority for the benefit of the citizens and environment of New Mexico,” said Joe Zupan, executive director of Amigos Bravos, a water advocacy group. based in Taos.
But during a public hearing on Wednesday, some people called for adding wording that explicitly gives the agency enforcement power and spells out fines and other penalties in the event of a spill.
Some expressed concern that the rule says the agency can take enforcement action rather than doing so.
“To ban something without applying this rule does not make sense,” said Gail Evans, a lawyer at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.
But Nichols said how the agency will penalize polluters is a question for another day.
“This regulation was not intended to answer that question,” Nichols said. “This question will be answered as we see this rule implemented.”
The agency will have the discretion to enforce the rule, in the same way that a traffic cop can give a speeding motorist a ticket or a warning, Nichols said.
At the hearing, an industry representative argued that flexibility should be given to operators who experience spills due to weather events, vandalism, equipment failure and other unrelated factors. of their will.
And operators who make an honest effort to respond to a spill should not be punished.
While none of these suggestions were included in the final rule change, industry groups have still expressed support.
“We support updating the rule and believe it is in line with practices widely adopted by the industry and used today,” wrote Robert McEntyre, spokesperson for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, in an email. The update also reiterated the authority of the Petroleum Conservation Division to ensure that these events are dealt with promptly and correctly, as is always the goal of the petroleum and natural gas industry. . “
Data from the division shows there were around 12,000 spills between 2010 and 2020, with an average of three to four per day.
Environmentalists believe that tougher regulations like this will reduce the rate of dumping.
“The vast majority of spills are preventable,” Norman Gaume, a retired water engineer, said at the hearing.
Doug Meiklejohn, another attorney for the Environmental Law Center, said he was disappointed the commission rejected two proposed additions to the rule.
The contents of a spill should have been analyzed to determine its toxic substances, he said. The other reportedly required residents within half a mile of a spill to be warned.
But Meiklejohn said the rule change is a critical first step in protecting public health and the environment.
“I am happy that the commission adopted the bylaw that prohibits spills,” he said.
Nichols said watching parties who often disagree come to an agreement is refreshing.
“It’s pretty unusual to have a rule change with so much consensus,” Nichols said.