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State needs to refill oil and gas regulators’ tanks

Oil and gas production has skyrocketed over the past decade, but years of funding cuts under former Gov. Susana Martinez have left New Mexico’s energy and environmental agencies unable to guarantee industry operations take place safely and responsibly.

The state’s leaders can chart a new course by getting these agencies the resources they need to keep pace with industry’s growth, and protect the health, air and water of New Mexicans across the state. This will mean substantial budget increases to get these vital regulators back on their feet.

Since 2011, oil production has climbed 235% and the number of new wells drilled has increased 80%, yet recent reports make clear just how dire the situation is for the agencies that protect New Mexico’s natural resources and environmental health

Analysis from the Environmental Integrity Project found the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), responsible for protecting the state’s air and water resources, saw funding fall 27% from 2008 to 2018 and lost nearly 10% of its staff over that period.

A review from the Groundwater Protection Council revealed New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division (OCD), which oversees oil and gas operations and permitting, experienced a five-fold jump in some permitting applications while contending with staff losses of 40% to 60% in key areas. In fact, experts at the GPC describe OCD as being “in a near crisis situation” due to financial and staffing constraints.

A report from New Mexico Wild shows under the Gov. Susana Martinez administration OCD lost one-quarter of its funding, while its parent agency, Energy, Minerals & Natural Resources, lost nearly 30%. Additionally, NMED lost 32% of its funding.

Without adequate funding and staff, regulators cannot fulfill their mission, and the consequences inevitably fall on everyday New Mexicans.

We know oil and gas operators are emitting unprecedented levels of pollution in parts of the state. In fact, Eddy, Lea and San Juan counties are at risk of violating federal air quality standards, and over 75% of children under 5 years old in these counties live within a mile of an active wellsite. Getting emissions under control and protecting our children means having regulators equipped to do their jobs.

The Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham administration has made huge strides to improve these regulatory agencies, including restoring enforcement authority to OCD, and fighting to get both NMED and EMNRD more funding. However, these agencies find themselves in a deep funding hole after eight years of Martinez-era budget cuts. …

For example, according to New Mexico Wild’s report, if the Lujan Grisham administration budget request for EMNRD is fully funded this year, it would represent an almost 9% increase from the Martinez administration, accounting for inflation, but still be almost 17% less than the average funding level under the Gov. Bill Richardson administration in 2003 to 2011.

The same is true for NMED, where the Lujan Grisham administration’s request would represent an approximately 20% increase from the Martinez administration, but be 18% less than the average under Richardson.

Problems like runaway emissions, oilfield spills and leaks undermine the oil and gas industry’s “social license to operate” and its long-term viability in a low-carbon economy. Having agencies equipped to enforce standards and ensure operators act responsibly is also in the broader industry’s interest.

Investments in agencies like NMED and EMNRD will benefit all New Mexicans. These investments are critically important as development pressures increase and the state moves to meet its commitment to nationally leading methane rules in 2020.

Jon Goldstein served as cabinet secretary of the EMNRD and deputy secretary of NMED.

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