We need to strengthen the Pit Rule, not do away with it | Gwen Lachelt

May 22, 2012
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Gwen Lachelt, Earthworks' Oil and Gas Accountability Project

Last week, Governor Martinez’s Oil Conservation Commission considered whether to weaken or eliminate a safeguard that protects our drinking and groundwater from toxins. Called the Pit Rule, it was passed in 2008 in response to over 400 reports of groundwater contamination from the oil and gas drilling process. Passing this rule was no small task.

A rulemaking involves a thoughtful stakeholder process and public hearing – a thoughtful process to develop commonsense rules that prevent and minimize the social, environmental and economic impacts of oil and gas development. The Pit Rule was no exception – it was adopted in 2008 after an 18-month process that included diverse stakeholder input and 17 days of public hearings.

With such thorough hearings already conducted, there is ample information available to the commission that supports the adoption and implementation of the Pit Rule. However, in a strange twist, Jami Bailey – the chair of New Mexico’s oil and gas oversight agency – would not admit the 8,000 pages of testimony and exhibits put forward in the hearing held in 2007 to develop the Pit Rule. The reason? She claims this is a whole new rule.

At the same time, industry also claims that this hearing is simply amending the Pit Rule. How can it be both ways?
Not your granddaddy’s oil and gas waste pit

In recent weeks, several articles and reports have been released that only further emphasize how critical protections like the Pit Rule are to New Mexico.

One article by The Santa Fe New Mexican stated that while New Mexico has over 100,000 oil and gas wells, it has fewer than 100 inspectors to monitor them. The article goes on to say that, “…with so many wells to check, (the inspectors) are lucky to get to each well once every three years.” Without adequate experts and staff keeping an eye on the drilling process, protections like the Pit Rule serve as a critical safety net to ensure that the oil and gas industry is operating in a responsible manner.

But now, the oil and gas industry aims to change that by including significant changes in the proposed “amended” rule, including the development of multiple, multi-well pads (up to two miles apart) using a centralized pit for produced fluids.

To be clear, what is being proposed is not your granddaddy’s oil and gas waste pit – it is more like a lake. Industry wants no limit on the size of these gigantic pits. In New Mexico, these would be considered “jurisdictional dams.” These enormous waste reservoirs would be nearly impossible to isolate from livestock, wildlife and migratory birds.

Unfortunately, the consequences of exposure could be dire. Similarly huge impoundments have already driven residents from their homes due to odors and health problems in states like Pennsylvania. Is this something we want in New Mexico?
We can’t afford such careless development

Currently, jurisdictional dams must be approved by the Office of the State Engineer. But in this rushed five-day hearing to “amend the Pit Rule,” industry wanted Jami Bailey and the 3-member Oil Conservation Commission to agree that jurisdictional dams are just bigger pits and don’t need approval or permit from the state engineer. With the shale oil and gas development boom on the horizon in New Mexico, we can’t afford such careless development.

Even if state engineer approval is mandated, it won’t ensure that oil and gas operators will be appropriately held accountable for rule violations – especially if the Pit Rule is weakened. A report released last week by the Oil and Gas Accountability Project revealed that even in situations where violations were identified by inspectors, there was a clear lack of consistency in violation assessments and enforcement actions. In some cases, enforcement actions actually varied widely from inspector to inspector – creating the opposite of regulatory certainty.

Governor Martinez and her Oil Conservation Commission should be seeking ways to strengthen protections to address these concerns and more instead of doing away with the Pit Rule altogether.

Lachelt is the founder and director of Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project.

Tagged with: pit rule, new mexico, hydraulic fracturing, fracking

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