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Wed Apr 7, 2021, 07:03 AM

'No Teeth and No Funding': How Regulators Failed to Police the Oil Industry

The fracking boom in the Permian Basin—which straddles West Texas and southeastern New Mexico—largely coincided with Republican control of much of New Mexico’s state government. Many of those elected to office in the early years of the shale rush promptly began dismantling barriers to extracting the most oil and gas at the cheapest price: Soon after winning the governorship in 2010, Republican Susana Martinez shuffled key employees in the environment department into positions where they had little expertise. During her eight-year tenure, the state legislature slashed the budget for the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division (OCD), which oversees the oil and gas industry, by 25 percent. By 2018, half of all inspection and compliance positions were vacant.

“Their budget was gutted,” said Stephanie Garcia Richard, a Democrat and the current land commissioner in charge of overseeing drilling on state lands. “They were casting about every which way [for money]. They were a regulatory body that had no teeth and had no funding.”

Martinez’s Democratic successor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, has since made attempts to restore regulatory funding. Nevertheless, at present the two OCD districts overseeing a large portion of the Permian Basin have just seven inspectors to cover more than 50,000 square miles—an area larger than the size of Pennsylvania.

Oil and gas well inspections ensure that operators are playing by the rules: checking that wells aren’t leaking underground, that there haven’t been spills, and that operators have appropriate signage around well sites. But a review of more than three decades of state records by Grist and the Texas Observer shows just how rare such inspections have become. Since 1988, OCD has inspected each oil and gas well about every two years on average. And inspections are becoming even more infrequent: While the agency averaged about 52,000 inspections each year during the Martinez administration, only about 30,000 were done in 2019 and 41,000 in 2020.

Read more: https://www.texasobserver.org/texas-observer-enforcement-abandoned-oil-wells/

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