A rule that forbids drillers from spilling oil or liquid waste would seem a given in New Mexico, which has one of the nation’s largest fossil fuel industries.
But the state has no actual rule barring operators from spilling oil or “produced water,” the toxic liquid byproduct from hydraulic fracturing.
Instead, companies must report a spill and then work with regulators to clean it up — a system that critics say is woefully inadequate because it’s reactive rather than preventive, and it relies on an honor system that some operators don’t adhere to.
The state Oil Conservation Division, which regulates oil and gas activity, teamed up with the environmental group WildEarth Guardians to propose a rule change that makes spills from drilling unlawful.
Conservationists, industry representatives and residents in affected communities all back the proposal. They spent most of Wednesday testifying before the Oil Conservation Commission, the division’s rule-making body.
The commission will decide Thursday whether to adopt the amended rule.
“The vast majority of spills are preventable,” Norman Gaume, a retired water engineer, told the panel. “Spill control in New Mexico is currently voluntary. Some operators invest to control their spills. Others don’t.”
Gaume and others argued that the agency must go further, establishing penalties for polluters and beefing up enforcement.
That was in contrast to industry representatives who said leeway should be given to operators who sustain spills because of weather events, vandalism, equipment breakdowns and other things beyond their control.
And operators who are making an honest effort to respond to a spill should not be punished, said Andrew Cloutier of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico.
The agency should consider whether it’s necessary to slap fines on operators, especially smaller ones who contribute to the state’s economy, Cloutier said.
“Many of our members have a significant and exclusive presence in New Mexico, so they create both good-paying blue-collar jobs and provide opportunities for educated New Mexicans to stay at home and work as accountants, engineers and geologists,” Cloutier said.
But community and environmental activists said the point is to hold bad players accountable.
The division’s data show there were roughly 12,000 spills between 2010 and 2020, an average of three to four per day, said Daniel Timmons of WildEarth Guardians.
“Some, if not many, of these spills are preventable, and after-the-fact reporting and cleanup that’s currently required is not always enough to protect public health and the environment,” Timmons said.
“Spills and releases of toxic substances should be prevented from happening in the first place.”
The rule is designed to provide the agency with an additional tool for enforcement, Timmons added.
Several people argued the agency should obtain more budgeting to boost staffing needed for enforcement — otherwise the rule will have no teeth.
Increased funding is especially needed, given how budgets for regulatory agencies were cut in the previous administration, said Camilla Feibelman, director of the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter.
“We shouldn’t spend resources on permitting industry without the proper capacity to inspect and enforce and protect our people, air, water and climate,” Feibelman said.