New Mexico has 60,000 oil wells — and 14 oil well inspectors

Stagnant waste water near a fresh water pick up outside Hobbs, New MexicoMónica Ortiz Uribe

There’s a saying in southeast New Mexico that if God intended for there to be oil drilling, he picked the right kind of country for it. Out here the land is desolate. No trees, no mountains, just sky. A blue dome that arches over gentle slopes covered in prickly plant life…

Oil production in New Mexico has shot up 70 percent since 2008. The number of active wells across the state has grown to 60,000.

Compare that to the number of state inspectors who check those wells. Statewide there are just 14. Ron Harvey is one of them.

“I have almost 8,000 wells, just me,” Harvey said…

Harvey works for the Oil Conservation Division. It’s the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry in New Mexico, and its inspectors are the police officers of the oilfield. It’s difficult for the state to retain them because they can double their salary if they work for an oil company…

The lack of enforcement staff makes keeping up with the workload impossible. According to OCD records, 40 percent of the wells in New Mexico were never inspected in 2013. That can put workers and the environment at risk. For example, a well that fails a pressure test could result in a deadly blow out. A leaky well can contaminate soil or groundwater…

Six years ago the OCD was sued by a local oil company and had to stop issuing fines for violations under the state’s Oil and Gas Act. Inspectors still have the option to deny permits to drill new wells or transport oil, but the process can be cumbersome and lengthy.

Staffing and enforcement aren’t his only concerns. Harvey’s 2008 Dodge pickup has 144,000 miles on it. It takes a severe beating in the oilfield where roads are sometimes nonexistent. His old desk computer takes five minutes to boot up…

Year after year the OCD’s budget represents less than one percent of the total tax revenue the state collects from the oil and gas industry. That revenue topped $1.7 billion in 2013.

First off, RTFA all the way through. There are links to three other sections of the larger reporting task the folks at Frontera Desk gave themselves about the state of the oil and gas industry in New Mexico. Conclusions are about what you expect. Even Democrats with liberal pretense are often in bed with folks who suck their money out of the ground. Republicans, of course, don’t even pretend.

Governor Susana used to debate folks over how she’s owned by The Oil Patch Boys from Texas. Nowadays, she just points out she’s equally owned by New Mexico fossil fusiliers. Last things she’s going to admit is that her owners are about the worst thing that’s happened to New Mexico’s environment and economy since folks started mining less coal and producing more natgas and crude.

The amorphous political clot that is the state legislature, The Roundhouse, can take the bulk of the credit over time. Lousy rules and mediocre oversight aren’t a recent fact of life in the Land of Enchantment. The spell of easy campaign money has long been cast over New Mexico political hacks.

17 thoughts on “New Mexico has 60,000 oil wells — and 14 oil well inspectors

  1. WTF says:

    In 2009 the Marbob Energy Corporation sued the state of New Mexico, arguing that statutes under the Oil and Gas Act of 1935 did not give the state direct authority to levy fines against the industry. The state supreme court agreed and as a result companies who violate the Oil and Gas Act are not penalized. In 2013, state Rep. Gail Chasey of Albuquerque introduced a bill that would reform the state’s Oil and Gas Act, which has not been amended since it was passed in 1935. That bill died in a floor vote in the House of Representatives after New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (which the Oil Conservation Division is a part of) opposed the bill, stating it already had “sufficient measures in place” to enforce its regulations.
    Meanwhile, as of 2011 New Mexico taxpayers were reportedly contributing $285,000 every day ($104 million a year) to subsidize the oil and gas industry.

  2. Bob17 says:

    According to Colorado’s Oil and Gas Commissioner his state has 1,959 active wells per inspector, a ratio that puts it in the middle of seven oil- and gas-producing states the commission surveyed. Alaska had the lowest ratio, about 370 wells per inspector. Wyoming had the highest, more than 2,900 wells per inspector. As per the above New Mexico has 4,285.7 wells per inspector on average – with at least one inspector reportedly responsible for 8000 wells.

    • Deadzone says:

      “Colorado land impact of oil and gas boom: scars spread and stay” “Under Colorado’s regulations, oil and gas companies don’t have to file a reclamation plan before they begin drilling, and although the state does require that drill sites be completely reclaimed to reduce erosion, loosen compacted soil, prevent dust storms and control invasions of noxious weeds, there is no mandated timeline for such work to be done nor does the state track such work, and the Denver Post has found that there are 47,505 inactive wells in Colorado, that the area around half of those have yet to be restored, and that work on 72 percent of the unrestored sites has been ongoing for more than five years.” See interactive map for thousands of inactive wells around Colorado. Click the zoom button, and click on the marker for specific information for each site. Make the map full-screen by clicking the arrow icon.

  3. Ed Bernays says:

    The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association is hitting back at environmentalists with a new promotional campaign entitled “Funding Education, Fueling Our Future.” According to a spokesperson for the group it is spending $250,000 to air a new 30-second TV commercial and publish print ads to counter environmental groups who recently got the federal Bureau of Land Management to defer the proposed drilling of five Navajo allotment parcels. Critics say the Association should spend money on cleaner technology instead of self-promotion.

  4. Rope choaker says:

    While she was running for office Susana Martinez took almost a million dollars in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry, then, after she was elected Governor, her administration created a fictitious inspector allowing almost 500 oil and gas wells to skip required safety inspections. When the Albuquerque Journal uncovered the scandal, 85% of those sites failed inspection. Also: “A former top Bureau of Land Management official in New Mexico who later headed an oil and gas trade group accepted improper industry gifts while at the agency and “attempted to obstruct” a federal investigation into his conduct, according to an inspector general’s report that was kept from the public for more than three years. The Interior Department IG’s investigation centered on Steve Henke, who retired as manager of BLM’s Farmington field office in May 2010 to become president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, which lobbies BLM and state regulators on a wide range of energy policy issues.”

  5. Wild West says:

    Staffers allege misconduct at BLM’s busiest oil and gas office. Complaints to the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General reveal concerns that the Carlsbad Field Office violated environmental and archaeological laws to expedite oil and gas development near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The allegations come amid a massive oil and gas boom in the Permian Basin, which stretches from West Texas into southeast New Mexico.

  6. John D. says:

    For the first time in a decade the agency charged with regulating New Mexico’s oil and gas industry can enforce state rules by imposing penalties for violations.
    The Oil Conservation District (OCD), a division of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), adopted a new rule Thursday which enables the OCD to assess penalties to oil and gas producers operating in the state for violations of New Mexico’s Oil and Gas Act. It’s the first time the OCD has had the authority to impose fines for violations since 2009.
    Oil and gas drilling activity has increased dramatically in recent years as the Permian Basin has become the world’s most active oilfield. The state produces an average of 900,000 barrels of oil a day, according to the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. 2019 was the third year in a row for the state for record-setting production.
    A January 2019 report found the number of oil and gas-related spills increased nearly 100 percent since 2008 and more than 500 percent since 2000. Reportedly 10,000 violations occurred between 2011 and 2018, also the OCD only collected $50,000 in penalties during that period. The OCD has only issued three penalties in the past 11 years, according to the EMNRD.
    See chart

  7. Update says:

    War of Words Over New Mexico’s Oil Fields : Biden’s ban on new drilling operations on public lands has been blocked for now, but the political battle rages on.
    “In mid-June, a federal judge in Louisiana blocked the Biden administration’s 5-month-old pause on new oil and gas lease sales on federal lands and waters. But in New Mexico, where the state’s Democratic governor had requested an exemption to the pause, the tension over leases highlights how tricky it is for petroleum-dependent states to transition away from the historically rich revenue stream.
    It’s not yet clear how the judge’s order will play out, but the pause had already led to a dustup among state legislators and an unusual alliance across the upper levels of the state’s deeply polarized political parties.”

    • Peón says:

      “How big oil keeps a grip on New Mexico – with the help of a major lobbyist”
      The international lobbying firm FTI Consulting has a reputation across the US for running influence campaigns that give the impression they were started by local concerned citizens, despite being funded by big oil, a practice known as astroturfing. The New York Times reported that FTI staffers help run an organization called New Mexicans for Economic Prosperity, a coalition of business associations and other partners. Among them is the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, which advocates for “responsible development” in the state, per the group’s website.
      (NYT): “How One Firm Drove Influence Campaigns Nationwide for Big Oil : FTI, a global consulting firm, helped design, staff and run organizations and websites funded by energy companies that can appear to represent grass-roots support for fossil-fuel initiatives.”

  8. Har-de-har says:

    “New Mexico’s Pandemic Oil and Gas Plan Aided a Putin Pal and Trump Donor”
    Russian-born American citizen Simon Kukes heads Pedevco, a Houston-based oil and gas firm that runs Ridgeway and EOR, as well as another small producer in Colorado. Kukes gained notoriety in the early 2000s when Vladimir Putin appointed him to run the Russian firm Yukos Oil after Putin seized the company’s assets and chucked its previous CEO — voluble critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky — in prison. Kukes reemerged in the news as a major donor to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, bragging to a Kremlin official of his access to Trump’s inner circle and campaign organization.
    In New Mexico, Ridgeway owns more nonproducing wells labeled “active” than any other company. The next two largest owners of nonproducing wells are bankrupt. It’s not clear why such a knowledgeable and well-connected oil and gas player as Kukes would end up with so many unproductive wells. But it is clear that a program created to protect the state’s petroleum resources from the economic fallout of the pandemic has had unintended consequences.

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