2015: Four spills a day by NM oil and gas

James Fenton
A pump jack operates in October 2015 off Highway 173 in Aztec.

FARMINGTON — A report released Thursday by the Center for Western Priorities claims that the oil and gas industry last year caused an average of four spills a day of materials produced during oil and gas operations.

Using publicly available data from the state's Oil Conservation Division online permitting database, the Denver-based group's report shows there were 1,477 reported spills in New Mexico in 2015.

Although most of the activity was in southeast New Mexico, which was experiencing an oil boom, Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director at the Center for Western Priorities, said in an email that San Juan County ranked third in the state for oil and gas industry spills.

"After Eddy and Lea Counties, San Juan County experienced the third most spills of any county in the state — 130," Prentice-Dunn said. "Rio Arriba County was fourth with 80 (spills). In both San Juan and Rio Arriba counties, natural gas leaks were the most common type of release, followed by produced water." 

Merrion Oil and Gas Corporation Investment Manager George Sharpe said the report is a collection of statistics without sufficient context to brand the industry a major polluter.

Sharpe said that none of the spills resulted in long term impacts to the environment or to drinking water sources.

"Most of those spills are minor in size — a barrel or two — and every single one was cleaned up and none were from fracking," Sharpe said in a phone interview on Thursday. "Unless you look at them in context, they seem terrible. How many car accidents are there in the state every day? And yet we keep driving cars. And most of them are minor accidents, minor issues."

The report defined a spill as a release with an assigned incident number. A single incident involving multiple materials, was counted as one spill.

"In 2015, (there were) 348 incidents in which more than one material (was) reported, thus the sum of spills broken down by material spilled is greater than the total number of incidents," the report states.

Materials spilled include produced water — briny subsurface water that is brought to the surface during oil and gas operations that carries chemicals and hydrocarbons. In 2015, an average of 11,550 gallons of produced water was spilled each day in New Mexico, or roughly eight gallons per minute, according to the report.

Spills or releases also included crude oil, natural gas, natural gas liquids and natural-gas condensate, and were most often caused by equipment failure or human error, according to the report.

"In 2015, an average of 2,443 gallons of crude oil were spilled each day in New Mexico, along with 11,550 gallons of 'produced water,'" the online report states.

The New Mexico oil and gas industry also caused 363 reported releases of natural gas in 2015, "roughly equivalent to driving 11,000 cars for a year," according to the report.

The report's data represent an 87 percent increase in spills since 2011 and a 5 percent increase over 2014.

According to the report, 80 percent of the reported spills occurred in the Permian Basin — in Eddy and Lea counties — in the southeastern corner of the state.

The rates aren't entirely surprising, said Wally Drangmeister, New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman. 2015 was a record production year in the Permian Basin, Drangmeister said.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.