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Watering down drilling rules is wrong move

By March 25, 2013Uncategorized
By Javier Benavidez | MyView | The Santa Fe New Mexican

In New Mexico, we are rightly proud of our exceptionalism. Our diverse blend of cultures (Spanish settlement dating back more than 400 years and Native American roots that run even deeper) makes us unique. However, more recent trends to buck the mainstream and roll back common-sense safeguards for our water resources are troubling.
Despite a national trend toward improved air and water quality regulation of oil and gas drilling, our state officials appear poised to weaken requirements on waste pits used to hold fluids and other toxic byproducts of oil and gas drilling operations. Improper construction and management of these pits is one of the biggest threats the oil and gas industry poses to underground drinking water aquifers. By weakening the pit rules, New Mexico would expose underground drinking water supplies to pollution at a time when worsening drought is making these pristine aquifers all the more precious.

This wasn’t always the case. In 2008 — after an 18-month stakeholder process and weeks-long public hearing — the state implemented some of the nation’s best regulations of waste pits. These rules were based on more than 400 cases of groundwater contamination from faulty pits documented by the state. The rules required that pits be lined to prevent leaks, promote the use of closed-loop or “pitless” drilling systems, and mandate the disposal of wastes at approved facilities. Other states, including neighboring Colorado, soon followed our lead and passed their own more protective pit rules.
Unfortunately, while our neighboring states have and continue to strengthen requirements on the oil and gas industry that better protect the environment, New Mexico is in retreat.
Some of New Mexico’s largest oil and gas producers, represented by the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, are requesting that the state reduce these vital water quality protections on drilling pits. Their petition to the New Mexico Oil Conservation Commission (OCC) requests numerous amendments to the state’s pit rule. If approved, these amendments would put our water supplies at risk by removing efforts to encourage more modern and protective closed-loop drilling methods and allowing for drilling wastes to be buried in place.
Allowing for on-site burial of wastes contaminated with high levels of chlorides and other contaminants with little or no protection from these pollutants leaching to groundwater (in a state that gets 90 percent of its drinking water from groundwater) is extremely troubling. Further, arsenic, mercury, heavy metals and radioactive materials are not even tested for.
Why seek a weaker rule that imperils water resources? It’s not because drilling and profits are down. Production activity has increased since the pit rules were passed in 2008 with oil production in particular reaching levels not seen since the 1970s.
The OCC made a preliminary ruling last week that appears to indicate they are moving toward a weakening of current rules. More will be know when the final order is released in April.
In the meantime, New Mexico industry and regulatory leaders should remember that others are watching. Oil and gas production has become a national issue, with media attention around hydraulic fracturing bringing the debate around drilling into the public consciousness like never before.
At a national level, this attention and awareness is helping drive the industry and regulators toward better drilling guidelines.
Being unique is good. But being the black sheep on an issue as important as clean water protections is nothing to be proud of, puts an entire industry in a negative light, and significantly raises the potential for the destruction of water resources critical to life in New Mexico.
Javier Benavidez is a Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund board member and lives in Albuquerque.