Capital & Main reporting leads to fines for oil and gas polluters

EPA previously let polluters go with a slap on the wrist.

By: - March 30, 2023 4:15 am

(Photo by Charles O’Rear / Getty Images)

On Monday, the New Mexico Environment Department announced the second monetary penalty in a week for an oil and gas producer found in violation of state and federal clean air laws. NMED announced a consent decree wherein Matador Resources of Dallas has agreed to pay $1.15 million in fines to the state of New Mexico and the federal government and millions more in wellsite cleanup and upgrades at sites across New Mexico’s portion of the Permian Basin, after a 2019 overflight program conducted by the EPA found dozens of Clean Air Act and permitting violations by the company.

Last week the EPA announced a settlement under which Chisholm Energy of Fort Worth will pay a $440,000 penalty and spend millions on upgrades after that company also was found to be in violation of the CAA following overflights in 2020.

NMED Secretary James Kenney says the fines are a result of two earlier stories reported by Capital & Main showing that the EPA was closing out CAA cases without fines for air pollution violations found in New Mexico during annual flyovers looking for methane leaks at oil and gas facilities in the Permian Basin. Capital & Main “pointed out to me EPA was settling these cases without a penalty for a while until we said, ‘That’s unacceptable,’” Kenney says. 

While both cases happened in New Mexico and were the result of illegal emissions found during oilfield overflights looking for methane leaks in 2019 and 2020, they differ in how they were enforced and by whom. Chisholm Energy was handled entirely by the EPA, while NMED and EPA teamed up on the Matador case. 

“I’m appreciative EPA is coming in to do the enforcement: We need it — we need that help,” Kenney says. However, “It bothers me that the penalties that the feds will collect will go to the U.S. Treasury and will not benefit New Mexico.” All of the money from the Chisholm case will go to the federal government, while the Matador case penalty will be split roughly 60/40 between the federal government and the state of New Mexico. If NMED was better funded, Kenney says the agency would conduct enforcement actions on its own, and any penalties would end up in New Mexico’s accounts instead.

These two cases and four more are part of a batch found through the EPA overflights that Kenney had hoped to wrap up last summer. He is not sure when the remaining four will be settled, or when his office will be ready to take up further cases. “A lot of our enforcement resources have been tied up in the judicial cases that I thought we would have been announcing last summer,” he says. He had hoped that the companies would enter consent decrees under which they would agree to clean up problem facilities, change future practices and pay a reduced fine for cooperating with the state. But, he says, “They’re not rolling over and settling.” That means NMED has to take the companies to court, making the cases much more costly and time consuming, he says. 

Matador, the ninth-largest producer in the state, earned $2.1 billion before taxes in 2022, double its earnings the previous year. Chisholm Energy is a privately held company that lists two main investors: Warburg Pincus, a private equity firm that claims more than $85 billion in assets, and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, with more than $247 billion in assets. 

Kenney says NMED devoted two staffers and its attorney and general counsel to the Matador case while also trying to enforce air rules for cement plants, power plants, asphalt plants and other industries. “It’s not oil and gas all the time,” Kenney says. “It could be with the amount of violations we do observe.”

He had hoped to hire up to 19 new staffers this year to work in the Air Quality Bureau with a hoped-for funding bump from the state Legislature, but the bump didn’t work out as planned. Despite receiving a 14% budget increase from the Legislature, mandated across the board pay raises left the department with a $1 million shortfall. Kenney says, “All the general fund money that we’re getting for increasing staff … we have to sweep all that money and put it toward the raises.” That whittled a multi-million dollar departmental increase down to $175,000, he says. 

That’s because 82% of NMED employees are funded through federal grants and other inflexible funds, so when the Legislature mandates a 6% pay raise, he has to scavenge the money from other operating expenses in the division to make the payment. And Kenney says that for NMED employees, “Your paycheck is larger, but your workload has increased exponentially.”

That’s why he’s planning two changes to how NMED operates. One is to dramatically increase air permit fees to cover the costs of hiring new enforcement officers. The other is to make all of the state’s information on air violators quickly and publicly available so outside groups can take on air enforcement cases themselves, much as WildEarth Guardians did last year. 

“There’s ample opportunities to hold polluters accountable,” Kenney says. “All you need to do is look at the flyover data.”

That data: 

The following list shows oil and gas operators identified in the 2019, 2020 and 2022 EPA overflight programs in New Mexico. The 2019 identifications were made by the EPA. The 2020 identifications were made by Capital & Main from location data provided by NMED. That was compared with information from the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division, Google Earth maps and NMED’s online map to find company names.

About 20% of the 2020 flights could not be identified. Due to that level of uncertainty, instances of repeat violations may actually be higher than these estimates. Click here for videos from 2019, 2020 and 2022.

Company Leaking facilities in 2019 Leaking Facilities in 2020 Leaking Facilities in 2022
Apache Corporation 2
BPX Operating 3
BTA Oil Producers 7 8 19
Caza Operating 2 2
Chesapeake Operating 2
Chevron U.S.A. 1 11
Chisholm Energy Operating 3 2
Cimarex Energy Co. 12 3 5
Cimarex Energy Colorado 4
COG Operating 9 33 41
COG Production 8
ConocoPhillips  3
Contango Resources 4
Delaware G&P 6
Devon Energy Production 6 4 6
DJR Operating 14
Earthstone Operating 4 11
Enduring Resources 2
EOG Resources, Inc. 4 14 14
Epic Energy 1
ETC Texas Pipeline 2
Harvard Petroleum 1
Kaiser-Francis Oil 1
Legend Natural Gas III Limited Partnership 3
Lime Rock Resources A 1
Logos Operating 3
Marathon Oil Permian 1 3 4
Marbob Energy Corp. 3
Mesquite SWD 1
Matador Production 7 2
Maverick Operating 1
Mewbourne Oil  19 32
Murchison Oil and Gas 2
Nassau Resources 1
Occidental Permian 1 1
OGX Resources 1
Raybaw Operating 1
RKI Exploration Production (WPX) 6
Solaris Water Midstream 1
Targa Northern Delaware 5
Unknown 52
WPX Energy Permian 12 16
XTO Energy 3 4 4
XTO Permian Operating 6
Yates Petroleum  7
TOTALS 111 244 146


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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.