New Mexico's oil and gas regulators hope funding requests will strengthen operations

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

State agencies tasked with regulating energy development and the environment could be suffering from low staffing while they attempt to recover from funding declines in the last decade.

Meanwhile, the production of energy sources such as fossil fuels continued to grow to record numbers in New Mexico.

A report from the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance analyzed budget appropriations to the New Mexico Environment Department, the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and the New Mexico State Land Office dating back to 2004, finding “deep cuts” and staffing vacancies and the three agencies.

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Executive Director of New Mexico Wild Mark Allison said budget reductions under governor Susana Martinez, who served from 2011 to 2019, made it impossible for the State to protect the environment amid increased oil and gas development.

“State agencies tasked with protecting New Mexico’s environment and public lands have been decimated during the past decade, and deep staffing cuts and budget reductions have left the state unable to protect our air, land, and water the way it should be,” Allison said.

“New Mexico faces daunting challenges when it comes to our environment – from the growing threat of climate change, to water scarcity, to protecting wildlife and keeping up with the rapid growth of the oil and gas industry. The current funding levels and high vacancy rates in these departments are simply unacceptable.”

More:New Mexico struggles with staffing, funding to regulate oil and gas during boom

Allison called on state lawmakers to approve the funding requests, and push for more state money to go toward the agencies that will continue to oversee New Mexico’s biggest economic drivers in oil and gas and outdoor tourism.

“While some of the requests are modest, legislators must respond by fully supporting her request to increase funding levels for these key agencies to put New Mexico back on a path of environmental sustainability, protect public health and safety, and provide proper stewardship of our natural resources,” he said.

New Mexico Environment Department

During the Martinez administration, the study showed NMED’s general fund was cut by about 31.7 percent, and currently has a staff vacancy rate of about 18.8 percent.

More:State of New Mexico issues air pollution violation notices to oil and gas operators

There are seven inspectors used to monitor up to 7,700 source of air emissions across New Mexico, the report read, a ratio of about 1,100 sources per each inspector.

Since she took office in 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham requested funding increases that would increase state appropriations to NMED by 6 percent, read the report, up to almost $12 million.

That would mark a 19.6 percent growth from the Martinez administration, but would still be 18.3 percent less than the average under the Martinez’s predecessor Bill Richardson.

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For 2021, NMED requested an increase of more than $18 million, marking a 57.3 percent increase from the year before.

“Our ability to implement the mission of the Department – to protect public health and preserve our environment – is at stake," said NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney. "The funding increase requested by Gov. Lujan Grisham recognizes the necessity of fully implementing the Department’s mission for all New Mexicans.”

Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department

New Mexico’s primary regulatory agency for oil and gas, the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), had its budget cut by 23.7 percent during the Martinez administration, per the report, while the Oil Conservation Division (OCD), EMNRD’s subsidiary that directly oversees oil and gas, was cut by 25.8 percent.

About half of all inspector and compliance officers in the OCD were left vacant.

More:Oil and gas generated $3.1 billion in state revenue last year

Another division of EMNRD the State Parks Division saw a 13.8 percent cut during the Martinez administration, while 72 full-time employee positions were eliminated, leaving the Parks Division with a 24 percent vacancy rate.

Educational programs at state parks were also cut by more than half since 2016, read the report, leading to a decline of almost one million visitors since 2016.

Sarah Cottrell Propst, secretary of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, will be one of the panelists for the second presentation in the New Mexico State University Climate Change Education Seminar Series.

EMNRD Cabinet Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst said the staff and budget cuts stymied her department’s ability to perform its duties amid record-breaking oil and gas development.

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“EMNRD is delivering crucial services to New Mexico including outdoor recreation opportunities in State Parks, permitting and oversight of the Permian boom, reclamation of abandoned mine sites, renewable energy expertise, and wildland firefighting,” Cottrell Propst said.

"An understaffed Department makes it challenging to keep up with changes in the oil and gas industry and to have people on the ground in our State Parks and forests to implement innovative land management techniques and keep our Parks system running at its highest capacity."

She said EMNRD’s proposed 2021 budget could help bring the agency back to normal operations. A 9.3 percent general fund increase for EMNRD was appropriated for 2020, and another 12 percent increase was proposed for 2021.

Those increases would represent a 8.8 percent growth from the Martinez administration, the study read, but would still put EMNRD’s funding about 16.9 percent beneath the average level during the Richardson administration.  

“Over the past year we’ve made great progress in reducing our vacancy rate,” Cottrell Propst said. “And the proposed FY21 executive budget will help build our Department back up toward optimal levels.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.