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NM not ready to restore lands if boom’s a bust

By STEPHANIE GARCIA RICHARD

There are over 65,000 oil and gas wells in New Mexico. More than 14,000 active wells exist on state trust land alone. Thousands of wells means thousands of well pads, tank batteries, compressors, equipment and tens of thousands of miles of pipe. Like any infrastructure, those fixtures degrade over time, sometimes catastrophically.

Since 2018, the state Land Office has identified over 1,000 spills of oil, gas and produced water from those active wells. Expand that lens to federal, tribal and private land and the story gets much worse with upward of 25,000 spills identified in New Mexico.

When a spill involves an active company, we have some legal leverage to ensure that those responsible for the spill will clean it up. But if the responsible party has left the state or shut down, cleanup gets trickier. Oil and natural gas are finite resources. At some point in time, New Mexico will reach a point where the cost of production exceeds the value of production. This is inevitable, and someone will be on the hook to pay for the damage that’s left behind.

Right now the person on the hook is you, the taxpayer.

Currently, the Land Office requires bonding of $25,000 per operator, and this amount, in theory, may cover an unlimited number of wells and infrastructure. For the Oil Conservation Division to plug one well with no spills, the estimated bill is $28,000. The more damage the more it costs, and most wells do have spills and other contamination.

At minimum, 100 wells would cost $2.8 million just to plug the wells with no remediation of the land, leaving taxpayers, or potentially our public schools and other beneficiaries of those lands, footing the bill for over $2.5 million in costs. Multiply that by 65,000 wells and that is only the beginning of the shortcomings when it comes to bonding. To remediate one mile of pipeline, of which there are 10,000 miles throughout New Mexico, costs over $10,000.

Long story short, by every available indication, current bonding is inadequate to ensure that the financial burden of remediation falls on those responsible for contamination and not on New Mexico families. It’s inadequate, but by how much? We can estimate the shortfall, but we need to know the numbers. The industry and construction have expanded rapidly, and we need to catch up so we aren’t left holding the bag.

This legislative session, I’m asking our state representatives and senators to pass a memorial to help us find out how our bonding coverage stacks up against our needs. Most importantly, within this memorial I’m urging us to collaborate to make changes to ensure that New Mexicans do not get left footing a billion-dollar bill to clean up our land. This memorial will look at all operations across the state and will require coordination from the state Land Office, the Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

As commissioner of public lands, I have a dual responsibility to raise money for New Mexico public schools, hospitals and colleges while ensuring the health of the land for future generations. I take both responsibilities very seriously, and my biggest fear is that the financial burden could fall to taxpayers, or we could be forced to restore lands with money that really belongs to New Mexico’s public schools.

With the introduction of House Memorial 29, sponsored by Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, my hope is to ensure we have adequate financial coverage to restore our lands after their extractive use has expired so that they can continue to benefit our people and our public institutions, just as the state Constitution requires. In order to ensure the long-term health of our lands as well as that our schoolchildren and taxpayers don’t get left holding the bag, please call your legislators and urge them to support HM 29 during the legislative session.

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