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Fresh attacks on environmental regulations threaten New Mexico’s future

March 30, 2011, 1:00 am

Before the Martinez administration, Texas landowner and Earthworks organizer Sharon Wilson looked up to New Mexico for its pit rules.

Efforts by the Martinez administration to weaken environmental protections have come as a blow not only to residents and landowners here, but also to those who have looked to New Mexico as something of a model. 

For approximately eight years, landowner Sharon Wilson has been battling with natural gas producers drilling in the Barnett Shale area near Fort Worth, Texas. 

“I started out like everybody else: I heard about this Barnett Shale, and I thought, ‘Oh, goody, I’m going to be a millionaire,” Wilson says. “I started to research it and ran across environmental concerns. I was horrified—and scared.” 

Drilling activity where Wilson lives is comparable with that in the San Juan Basin of the Four Corners and the Permian Basin in southeastern New Mexico. The scale may be different—and regulations within the two states certainly are—but drilling activity is the same no matter where it occurs. Natural gas wells require high-pressure pipelines and pits to hold disposal water. 

Disposal pits are contaminated with the briny water from deep below the surface of the Earth, and petroleum product, as well as chemicals used during the hydraulic fracturing process. After a well has been tapped using traditional drilling methods, operators send a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals into the ground to crack the seams and extract more gas. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, can release approximately 20 percent of the gas traditional drilling leaves behind in the well. 

Almost three years ago, New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division implemented rules banning unlined waste pits associated with oil and gas wells. 

In Texas, however, pits remain unregulated.

“I used to hold y’all up on a pedestal,” Wilson says. She is now the Texas organizer for the nonprofit Earthworks and has also organized a national network of citizens who blog about drilling in their areas. “It’s not great, but it’s so much better than Texas. I always thought, ‘I wish we could get a pit rule.’” 

Despite state reports showing the extent of contamination from pits—nearly 7,000 cases of soil and water contamination between the mid-1980s and 2003, and 400 incidents of groundwater contamination—Martinez opposes the pit rules. In January, her initial nominee to head the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, Harrison Schmitt, said the department would prioritize review of those regulations. The obvious political implication is that the administration sees the rule as one that curtails the oil and gas industry—an industry Martinez is undoubtedly eager to please.

The oil and gas industry did send $807,125 campaign dollars her way. According to the website of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, some of the governor’s top contributors include the following oil and gas, mining, and utility companies: Devon Energy, Myco Industries, Yates Petroleum, Marbob Energy, Koch Industries, McElvain Oil and Gas Properties, Barrick Goldstrike Mines, New Mexico Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Williams Companies. 

Furthermore, the “small business-friendly task force”—its members were named secretly and its meetings were clandestine—she convened to review rules was not actually made up of small businesses.

According to public documents obtained by the website Clearly New Mexico, Martinez’ task force was “packed with large-business people and lobbyists from industries that gave big to the Martinez campaign—and who have been fighting back hard against pending state regulations.” Additionally, “the internal documents show members were never inclined to keep any of the regulations—in fact, they are focused on devising tactics the Martinez administration can use to eliminate each one.”

Wilson is familiar with such practices—as well as the threat that environmental regulations kill industry and hurt the economy.

When the residents in Dish, Texas, realized drilling was impacting their air and water quality, the mayor declared a moratorium on new drilling permits until the town could beef up its drilling ordinances and make them more protective of human health. 

Wilson points out that the oil and gas industry said increased regulation would kill the economy. People even worried operators might sue the town. 

“Guess what? Dish has one of the most restrictive drilling ordinances in Texas, and no one sued them,” Wilson says. “They still drill there, but now they follow the rules.” She laughs—in that way activists tend to when they’re accustomed to seeing sights such as flaming tap water shooting from a garden hose—and points out that, while operations still contaminate water, air quality has improved and there are now larger setbacks between the homes and industrial equipment. “Tighter regulation is not going to stop the drilling,” she says. “It’s just the threat they use to keep from being regulated—their goal is to make money and keep their overhead low.”

And the money is going to keep flowing, Wilson says, especially given new markets for natural gas. Operators drilling in the US are currently producing more natural gas than consumers are demanding—and are now exporting to countries such as China, which are paying three to four times the price for natural gas. 

With a market like that, Wilson notes that drillers certainly aren’t losing money. Nor are they going to pull up stakes if required to comply with environmental regulations, some of which would make operations more efficient and therefore more profitable in the long run. Cleaner technology does exist—Wyoming state regulators, for instance, require that operators install “best available control technology”—but as Wilson points out, no one is going to voluntarily spend money on pollution controls. It takes laws and regulators to force industry’s hand. 

Without stringent controls, things have gotten messy in Texas:

“I have videos and photographs of water that, when you run it, suds like dishwater. I have a video of a woman who can put a lighter on top of her water, and it makes like plastic, or wax paper,” Wilson says. “There is water that smells bad, that burns their skin and causes rashes, water that lights on fire, water that gets muddy and has debris in it.” 

For the most part, residents have nowhere to turn. 

The two oversight agencies in Texas that are responsible for issuing permits and regulating drilling are notoriously “chummy” with industry, Wilson says. The two agencies are the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Railroad Commission of Texas, and their members are appointed by the governor and then run for re-election. (Wilson points out that the top environment official at the Commission on Environmental Quality, appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, does not believe that climate change is caused by human activity.) 

“It’s really hard to figure out who regulates what and when—that’s one of the biggest obstacles,” she says. “Even the regulatory agencies don’t know sometimes.” Residents will call to complain about an issue—flammable tap water or toxic-smelling emissions—and they’re sent back and forth between the two agencies. 

New Mexico should learn a lesson from Texas, Wilson says, and not let industry run roughshod over regulators or intimidate communities with the threats of job losses or economic woes:
“I kid you not,” she says. “They’re making such a mess here, it’s unbelievable.”   

A list of state laws and regulations that the New Mexico Environment Department administers can be found at:
There are more than 30 federal laws directly related to the protection of the environment and public health. These include everything from the Oil Pollution Act to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, but the following four laws impact the lives of Americans on a daily basis:

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
Signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970, the act’s purpose is: “To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality.”
In short, NEPA ensures that developers consider how a proposed project on federal lands or using federal funds will affect natural resources that range from endangered species to water quality.

Three Mile Island power plant personnel clean up a contaminated auxiliary building in October, 1979.

Clear Air Act of 1970 (amended 1990)
This law defines the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) responsibilities to protect and improve air quality and the stratospheric ozone layer. Programs within the CAA include the Acid Rain Program and, more recently, the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions (

Clean Water Act of 1972 (amended 1977)
Under this act, the EPA has established pollution control programs and water quality standards. The federal agency also works with individual states to issue permits that allow industrial and municipal programs to discharge certain amounts of pollutants into waterways.

Endangered Species Act of 1973 (.pdf download)
Enforced by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, this law provides for protection of rare and nearly extinct plants and animals, as well as their habitats. Although this law is meant to protect individual species that merit listing under the act, the conservation of habitat also can positively impact factors such as local water quality.


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