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.