New Mexico legislators punt on money for oil and gas inspectors

The state’s booming budget lacks cash for monitoring of oil and gas wells

By: - February 18, 2022 5:46 am

A gas flare is seen at an oil well site on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota. Gas flares are created when excess flammable gases are released by pressure release valves during the drilling for oil and natural gas. (Photo by Andrew Burton / Getty Images)

North Dakota has 23.

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Colorado has 46 just at its Oil & Gas Conservation Commission.

Oklahoma has 56 and is looking for more.

California — always the overachiever — has 76 in its Department of Conservation. Four other departments also have some.

New Mexico has fewer than 20, on a good day.

They are field inspectors — the people who check each state’s oil and gas wells in person for leaks and compliance issues.

And New Mexico, the No. 2 oil producing state in the U.S. and No. 7 in natural gas, has fewer than other states, particularly when considering the size of the job before them. Oklahoma parallels New Mexico in natural gas production. All trail New Mexico in oil production.

The more inspectors we have, the more kind of ground we can cover.

– Adrienne Sandoval, director, Oil Conservation Division

The New Mexico Oil Conservation Division (OCD) — the state’s oil and gas monitoring body — has 11 inspectors dedicated to field work and has vacancies for two more. The Air Quality Bureau (AQB) at the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has six inspectors, but they monitor a lot more than just oil and gas operations.

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That means fewer than a dozen full-time, oil-and-gas-only field monitors to cover more than 52,000 active wells in the state. That’s not to mention thousands more injection wells, with more and more wells drilled every day.

The state Legislature passed a $8.48 billion dollar budget — up 13% over the previous year — that covers everything from hundreds of millions in pay increases for the state’s teachers to a $40 million initiative for a film academy — far more than the combined $25.7 million allocated from the general fund for both OCD and NMED in the coming year.

OCD Director Adrienne Sandoval acknowledges the pretty basic math between inspectors and wells. “The more inspectors we have, the more kind of ground … we can cover,” she said.

Beyond the increasing number of wells, her office’s regulatory workload increased as well in the past year. In May, it began enforcing a dramatic revamp in rules that expands monitoring of venting and flaring from oil and gas wells. The new rules intensify required reporting by operators — and that has led to a mountain of new information about who is polluting and how much.

Things are bad. Things are really bad.

– Dan Secrist, president, CWA Local 7076

The Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, the mother agency to OCD, has asked for increased staff and funding to carry out the increased mandate, but House Bill 2, the General Appropriations Act carried only a modest increase over last year’s budget. “We are happy to see some additions,” Sandoval said, adding, “But additional inspectors are going to be helpful.”

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A few blocks away at the NMED offices in Santa Fe, the situation is possibly even more dire.

“Things are bad. Things are really bad,” said Dan Secrist. He’s the president of Communications Workers of America Local 7076, the union that represents about 2,000 nonmanagement employees in state government, including those at NMED.

The Air Quality Board (AQB) at NMED is poised to implement new, more stringent air pollution rules — called the ozone precursor rules — for oil and gas operations later this year.

But Secrist said that low pay and staff shortages mean that workload has more than doubled in some areas at NMED in recent years, and the AQB “is probably the worst right now.” He added that the vacancy rate there is near 50%, and the workload has only increased.

Currently, the AQB has six field inspectors who cover a lot more than just oil and gas operations. “We have obligations from everything from dry cleaners to electroplaters to all sorts of facilities,” says James Kenney, department secretary at NMED.

The department regularly hires and trains new people, but the state agency’s low wages mean those newly trained people “may stay with you six months to a year, before they go and, you know, get picked up by the National Labs (or) by an oil and gas company,” he said. “It’s the most frustrating thing in the world.”

Sandoval at the OCD faces the same issue. Both say they plan to rely more on technological monitoring in the future — via satellites, aircraft and drones, among other things — because the area covered is so vast, and it is so hard to keep staff.

I don’t think the Legislature is as serious about its environmental commitment as the Environment Department is.

– James Kenney, state secretary, Environment Department

State salaries have to fall within state-regulated ranges that are well below what the private sector pays. It is an issue that only the Legislature can solve, but that isn’t in the cards anytime soon.

Kenney said that juggling the low pay is the hardest part of his job.

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“I mean, I can’t even pay off the comp time balances that people have, because we don’t have the money to pay them,” Kenney said. “And yet they just accrue comp time because we don’t have the staff or people to do (the work).”

He said that he could go to the Legislature to ask for more money for inspector positions, but “I don’t think the Legislature is as serious about its environmental commitment as the Environment Department is.”

Instead, he says his department will be working with its governing body, the Environmental Improvement Board, to increase permitting fees on businesses that emit regulated substances and use that money to hire more inspectors.

The budget bill passed from the House over to the Senate Finance Committee late last week, and in the opening minutes of that committee’s debate on Saturday afternoon, Sen. Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces said that trying to understand the 238-page bill and wrangle $8.47 billion in state funding in a few hours is “just kind of crazy.” There followed about an hour’s debate over the $40 million film academy initiative before the committee recessed for the night.

The following morning, Sunday, at 8 a.m., after a quick discussion about the film academy, the Senate Finance Committee unanimously passed HB 2 without further debate about any of the spending contained within it. It took less than 10 minutes.

“We spent a lot of money,” Finance Committee Chairman George Muñoz said as he turned business to the next piece of legislation. “I hope we did it correctly.”

The budget awaits the governor’s signature.

This article was originally published by Capital & Main. It is republished here with permission.

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Jerry Redfern, Capital & Main
Jerry Redfern, Capital & Main

Visual journalist Jerry Redfern covers the environmental and humanitarian issues across Southeast Asia and other developing regions, as well as at home in the US. His work ranges from the aftermath of American bombs in Laos to agroforestry in Belize to life amid logging in Borneo. Jerry’s photos have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Der Spiegel, among others. He has contributed to four book projects, including Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (co-authored with Karen Coates), which was a finalist for the IRE Book Award.