Amid an oil and gas boom, New Mexico legislators need to refill regulators’ tanks

As lawmakers convene in Santa Fe for the current legislative session, they face a state transformed by an oil and gas boom. Expanded oil and gas drilling has made New Mexico the No. 3 oil producer in the nation and is transforming large swaths of the state’s landscape.

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

The state’s leaders can chart a new course this year by ensuring these agencies have 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 going above and beyond the budget proposed for these agencies by Gov. Lujan Grisham in order to get vital regulators back on their feet.

As oil production booms, regulators face a bust

Recent reports make clear just how dire the situation is for the agencies that protect New Mexico’s natural resources and environmental health. Even as oil production has climbed 235% and the number of new wells drilled has increased 80% since 2011, state regulators have faced steep funding cuts and staff losses.

  • Analysis from the Environmental Integrity Project found the New Mexico Environment Department, 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, 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 Groundwater Protection Council describe OCD as being “in a near crisis situation” due to financial and staffing constraints.
  • A report from New Mexico Wild illustrates that under the Martinez administration OCD lost one-quarter of its funding, while its parent agency (Energy, Minerals & Natural Resources Department) lost nearly 30% of its funding. Additionally, NMED lost 32% of its funding under the Martinez administration.

Anemic funding leaves our air, water and health at risk

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

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 five 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.

Getting New Mexico the regulators it deserves will take additional investments

During Gov. Lujan Grisham’s first year, her 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, and more will need to be done just to get these agencies back where they were before Gov. Martinez took office in 2011.

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 Richardson administration (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 the Richardson administration.

These resource limitations aren’t just a problem for New Mexico’s communities and environment, they’re also bad news for industry

Problems like runaway emissions, oilfield spills and leaks all 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 in the broader industry’s interest.

No matter which way you look at it, investments in agencies like NMED and EMNRD will benefit New Mexico. These investments have only gotten more important as development pressures increase and the state moves to meet its commitment to nationally-leading methane rules in 2020. These considerations will be key as legislators make funding decisions for these agencies in the coming month.

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