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New Rules May Reduce Drilling on Otero Mesa

By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer
    SANTA FE— The state Oil Conservation Commission adopted new rules Thursday that will make it tougher to drill for oil and natural gas on Otero Mesa and other Chihuahuan Desert areas.
    The rules, which are designed to protect the ecologically important areas in southern New Mexico, ban the use of pits for storing drilling fluids and water produced in the drilling process.
    The rules also set stricter requirements for injection wells used to put brackish water back underground.
    "The governor has determined this is a very important area that needs protection," said Mark Fesmire, chairman of the commission and director of the state Oil Conservation Division.
    He said the new rules could lead to a reduction in development in the parts of Otero and Sierra counties that the new rules cover.
    "There could be some costs to preserving that very important environment out there," Fesmire said.
    The three-member commission unanimously approved the rules Thursday after considering testimony from a public hearing last month.
    But Commissioner Jami Bailey of the State Land Office said the new rules will mean less tax revenue for the state.
    "I believe it's a shame the schoolchildren of New Mexico will be denied about $40 million and the economic development of a poor part of the state will not occur," she said.
    The new rules require drillers to use a "closed-loop system" of steel tanks, rather than large pits in the ground, to hold drilling fluids and produced water.
    The water typically contains dissolved salts that can contaminate fresh water reserves; even lined pits are unsafe because they can leak and pits tear up land that can be hard to reclaim, according to the Oil Conservation Division.
    Environmentalists applauded the action while industry representatives said it will not better protect the environment.
    "We are really pleased to see the state step in the direction of closed-loop systems," said Jennifer Goldman, associate director of the Oil & Gas Accountability Project in El Prado. "This is an emerging industry standard, using these tanks instead of pits."
    She said wastes stored in pits can contain carcinogenic, hazardous and toxic substances.
    Industry representatives disagreed.
    "There's very little scientific data that demonstrates that these extreme precautions are necessary," said Mark Mathis, spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico. "They're going to discourage exploration and development of oil and natural gas on Otero Mesa."