CARLSBAD — A recent report says that nearly 1,500 oil, produced water and gas spills were reported in New Mexico in 2015.
Of those 644 spills were reported in Eddy County and 536 were in Lea County.
The report, done by Denver-based nonpartisan organization Center for Western Priorities, used publicly-available data from the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division.
“To us, what this report shows is that leaders in New Mexico need to do all they can to make drilling as safe as possible,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director for the organization. “We’d like to see oil and gas production made safer and soil and air pollution be reduced.”
Prentice-Dunn said the group doesn’t have any specific changes they would like to see made.
The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association did not return requests for comment.
According to the report, there was a 5 percent increase in reported spills since 2014.
The report claims that increase is in spite of decreased production in the state.
However, data from the Oil Conservation Division shows that while production numbers did dip in the latter part of 2015, overall, production actually increased by around 18 percent.
Beth Wojahn, communications director for the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division, confirmed that the number of reported spills in the report appeared to be accurate.
Most of the spills were produced water, or what Bureau of Land Management Environmental Protection Specialist Jim Amos called their “biggest nightmare,” due to the difficulty of cleaning them up.
Not enough to go around
The report also targets field inspectors in the state.
It claims that 14 inspectors were responsible for around 60,000 active wells last year, or one inspector for every 4,285 wells.
Those numbers were based off a 2015 article in “Inside Energy” magazine titled “New Mexico Oil Inspectors Overwhelmed,” which only took into account state inspectors.
As a comparison, Texas had 319,355 active wells as of Dec. 30, 2015, according to the Railroad Commission’s (Texas’ regulatory agency) website.
Ramona Nye, a media representative for the Texas Railroad Commission, said they have 139 inspectors in the field, or one for every 2,297 wells.
Beth Wojahn, communications director for the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division, said they currently have 18 inspectors statewide at this point.
However, the Bureau of Land Management also has inspectors.
Amos estimated that between Eddy and Lea Counties there are around 25 inspectors that work for the BLM.
Amos said the state does have trouble hanging onto field inspectors, something the “Inside Energy” article credited to lower pay than the industry provides.
“They’re really spread thin and they’re really quick inspections,” Amos said.
The BLM’s inspections, he said, are more thorough and typically perform inspections on a four- or five-year cycle, while state inspectors are on an every other year cycle.
Companies trying to improve
Amos added that companies are taking proactive steps to reduce the possibility of spills.
“It’s not in their best interest to lose oil and gas,” he said.
If produced water is spilled, it’s costly for companies to clean up as well, Amos said.
Amos said impermeable linings under batteries, where he said the majority of spills take place, have helped prevent spills and allow for recovery of leaked oil and produced water.
Susie Geiger, director of communications and public affairs for Occidental Petroleum Corporation, said in February the company takes preventative measures and also works to resolve issues that may have caused releases.
“Our top priority is and always will be the safety of our workforce and maintenance of our operations, including the prevention of releases,” Geiger said in an email. “We take proactive measures to identify, report and resolve releases that occur at our operations.”
Geiger also said the company complies with state and federal laws and regulations and invests in inspections, upgrades and replacements to equipment.
Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway echoed Amos’ remarks, saying companies, as well as the environment, lose out when a spill takes place.
“Every oil company I know of does everything it can to reduce spills. It’s a huge loss for them as well,” Janway said in an email. “The ‘Center for Western Priorities’ does appear to have a strong bias against this industry, and it gets lost in its doom and gloom approach and fails to correctly convey that almost half of these are relatively small water spills that are quickly cleaned up.”
However, he recognized that safety should play an important role in the industry.
“That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to work with the industry and state to find more ways to reduce spills, but we should consider the source,” he added.
Maddy Hayden can be reached at 575-628-5512.
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