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Zero fines shows oil, gas regulators need tools back

The House Chamber at the State Capitol in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The House Chamber at the State Capitol in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

In November, the people of New Mexico spoke with a clear voice, and elected the most diverse and progressive group of leaders in state history. From diverse backgrounds as educators, public health advocates and renewable energy engineers, these leaders ran on and received strong mandates from voters to put the health of our kids and our economy, as well as our clean air and water, at the forefront.

From all over the state, new legislators, and new statewide leaders like Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard are already hitting the ground running looking for ways to lead New Mexico into the future, moving forward important legislation protecting health care, ensuring the safety of our communities and improving our record on education.

This transformative change will take key improvements to our regulatory system, as well as a crucial piece of legislation currently making its way through the Roundhouse that can help give New Mexicans the health, air and water protections we deserve.

Spills from the oil and gas industry in New Mexico have increased dramatically in the past decade, but fines have been reduced to zero after a damaging Supreme Court case brought by the oil and gas industry in 2009 that tied the hands of state regulators. This must change.

To give one example, in July 2016, 36 oil storage tanks at a facility near Nageezi operated by oil and gas producer WPX caught fire, causing the evacuation of 55 local residents. WPX reported spills of produced water and crude oil, but the state regulatory agency assessed no fines.

This sends the wrong message. State regulators need the tools to hold the oil and gas industry accountable, and protect our air and water resources, especially as drilling is going through the roof in southeast New Mexico’s Permian Basin. Without these tools to penalize bad actors, industry will continue to take our state, health and resources for granted.

But there’s hope: on Thursday, the Senate Conservation Committee passed SB 186, restoring the power of the Oil Conservation Division to fine oil and gas operators who create spills or otherwise threaten the health of New Mexicans. It’s good to see senators pass a bill so important to our state and our people.

SB 186 fixes an ongoing issue that has faced the Oil Conservation Division since a 2009 court case that effectively stripped it of any real power to do what it’s charged with. Couple that with understaffing and the general sense of “drill, baby, drill” under the Martinez administration, and it’s easy to see why OCD collected NOT A SINGLE FINE last year, despite the over 1,700 infractions reported to the office. OCD also didn’t collect fines between 2011-15. Not a single one. Meanwhile, spills have increased 99 percent over the past decade. This is a terrible trend.

This legal ruling has hamstrung OCD in its ability to do what it is charged to do by we, the people of New Mexico, to monitor oil and gas wells and infrastructure, and ensure they’re being operated safely without exposing New Mexicans to harm and without harming our air and water. Without the needed fixes in SB 186, OCD will continue to founder in its mission, and oil and gas companies will continue to flout oil spills, methane leaks, sinkholes and other industry-caused disasters without recompense to us as New Mexicans.

Thank you to Sen. Richard Martinez, D-EspaƱola, and Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, for carrying this important piece of legislation. We’re pleased to see that senators in the Conservation Committee saw the sense in passing this bill to keep oil and gas companies accountable.

Now is the time to do better for New Mexico and use our momentum to create a better, cleaner and more equitable state. SB 186 is a critical part of continuing that progress for the people of New Mexico.

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