NM leaders press for plugging oil wells

The sun sets behind Shiprock Mountain, a pumpjack and the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington. Some members of Congress and state officials are urging the U.S. Interior Department to allow operators to temporarily plug wells until prices stabilize. (Dave Watson/The Daily Times)

As New Mexico’s oil and gas industry struggles with lower prices and slowing production brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, some members of Congress and state officials are urging the U.S. Interior Department to allow operators to temporarily plugs wells until prices stabilize.

U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small’s district includes part of the Permian Basin, one of the most prolific production areas in the U.S. The New Mexico Democrat is among those who have asked for more federal money to plug abandoned wells on state and tribal land.

“The consequences have been devastating for local economies across southeastern New Mexico,” Torres Small said of the downturn in demand. “Providing oil and gas operators the flexibility to temporarily shut in their wells will help meet needs where current guidance falls short.”

U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small

She and other supporters say implementing a policy for plugging wells would benefit oil and gas workers, the environment and the economy. She pointed to New Mexico’s dependence on the industry for more than one-third of its budget and the jobs that are associated with the oilfield.

State labor officials estimate about 4,100 oilfield workers had filed for unemployment as of May 5, as companies cut operations and left the state.

While the industry is starting to rebound, Torres Small said there’s still a long way to go and that the proposed federal rule making could provide regulatory certainty for operators and reduce the administrative obstacles to ceasing operations of oil and gas wells.

The move would mirror an effort by the New Mexico State Land Office to allow for shut-ins on state land. State officials have said shut-in wells would still be inspected for leaks and excessive emissions.

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