Southeast New Mexico plagued by oil and gas spills as production booms in Permian Basin

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

Uncertainty continued for the people of Malaga and throughout ranching communities in southern Eddy County in the days after the State of New Mexico began investigating a spill on the Black River of chemical-laden drilling mud by Matador Resources.

Residents were advised to avoid the river that many grew up swimming and fishing in, and which local livestock relies on for water.

The operation, which was constructing a pipeline to run beneath the river, was halted by the State until Matador solved the problem, meanwhile performing water and soil tests to determine the level of damage. 

As of Friday, wildlife appeared unaffected, said Susan Torres, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. 

But the State continued to monitor the situation closely, she said, for any violations to the Water Quality Act

"It is the responsibility of the company to fix any spills that occur," Torres said. "It is the (Oil Conservation Division's) job to oversee those efforts and ensure the characterization, cleanup, and restoration of spills is done correctly and in a timely fashion."

Bert Rios, a 67-year-old local farm owner and lifelong resident of Malaga said he called the State of New Mexico when he witnessed the normally clear waters of the river turn milky and began to suspect a nearby pipeline construction project was to blame.

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"I just thought that something had to be done," he said. "Our kids go swimming and fishing there during the summer. We'd hate for someone to get sick."

The State and Matador quickly moved in on the incident, with multiple agencies assessing the damage as a plume could be observed 75 to 100 miles from site of the spill.

"We're aware of a situation down there, and we're closely monitoring it," said Matador President Matt Hairford. "We operate in a compliant manner and take these things very seriously."

More:NMED: Stay out of Black River while Matador drilling mud spill investigated

The Black River is pictured, Feb. 24, 2020 in Malaga.

But oil and gas spills continued to plague New Mexico, especially in the southeastern corner of the state where the industry boomed in the Permian Basin, throughout 2019.

A report from the Center for Western Priorities showed that between New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming, the three biggest oil-producing states in the Intermountain West, 2,811 spills were reported last year, releasing 23,600 barrels of crude oil and 170,223 barrels of produced water.

That’s an average of 2,716 gallons of crude oil and 19,587 gallons of produced water per day.

More:State of New Mexico investigating possible spill reported on Black River near Carlsbad

New Mexico leads in spills

Using data from New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division (OCD), the study pointed to about four spills per day in the New Mexico, mostly in Eddy and Lea counties where production is highest.

In total, 1,352 spills were reported last year in the state, a slight 11 percent decline from the 1,523 spills in 2018.

Each day, about 280 barrels of produced water was spilled by oil and gas operators, the study read, with 41 barrels of crude oil spilled and about 2.2 million cubic feet of natural gas leaked.

More:Water pipeline explosion from oil, gas operation leaves Carlsbad family seeking answers

In Colorado, 636 spills were reported across the state last year, a 60 percent increase from 2012.

Wyoming reported 823 spills last year, a 15 percent increase from 2018’s total of 715.

A spill of produced water in the Otis area, just outside the southern outskirts of Carlsbad, recently showered a local home and livestock in potentially dangerous chemicals when a water line owned by WPX Energy suddenly broke.

More:State of New Mexico can fine oil and gas operators for violating state law

Homeowner Carl George said he awoke at about 2:30 a.m. to his home being sprayed with the waste from drilling operations.

The State and company were also on scene that day, working to quickly fix the damage and clean up the mess.

“We’re simply trying to do the right thing and get everything repaired and cleaned up quickly," said WPX spokesperson Kelly Swan on the day of the incident. “We certainly want to do right by our neighbors.”

More:Oil and gas spills up in New Mexico, as production continues to grow

Those neighbors, who live close to the increasingly dense oil and gas developments in southeast New Mexico were subjected to a total of 812 million cubic feet of natural gas leaked in 2019, an amount equivalent to 44,543 metric tons of carbon dioxide, read the study, tripling the amount of methane released in 2018.

That’s enough CO2 to match the burning of about 49.1 million pounds of coal, or driving 9,457 cars for a year or powering 5,140 homes.

More:Produced water spill reported in Delaware River

“At one point, I had 27 flares around me. It’s all around. There’s not enough oversight,” George said. “I’m not comfortable with it.”

Where is it coming from?

Oil production in the Permian was the largest culprit of the pollution with 87 percent of the spills reported occurring in Eddy and Lea counties.

Both counties, which cover the state’s southeast corner, suffered more than 500 oil and gas spills each in 2019, with Lea County reporting 656 last year and Eddy reporting 748.

As of Friday, Eddy County had 89 spills reported to the OCD, with Lea County reporting 67.

More:Study: Produced water from oil and gas could sustain fracking for Permian's lifetime

San Juan and Rio Arriba counties in the northwest reported between 11 and 100 spills last year, with Sandoval, Colfax, Union, Harding, Roosevelt and Chaves counties reporting between one and 10 spills.

The other 23 New Mexico counties did not report any spills last year.

Most of the reported spills were blamed on equipment failure.

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Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities blamed the administration of President Donald Trump for stripping environmental regulations on oil and gas production and increasing drilling on public land.

“With their ‘energy dominance’ agenda, the Trump administration is trying to ramp up drilling across the West. Our analysis shows the continued impact of drilling on our land, water, and communities,” Prentice-Dunn said.

“With nearly eight oil and gas spills reported a day in these three states, there is clearly a need for sustained enforcement of public health and environmental safeguards throughout the drilling process.”

More:New Mexico activists question governor's climate change goals amid Permian Basin oil boom

Mark Allison, executive director at the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance said state agencies should increase oversight of oil and gas.

“This recent analysis shows the oil and gas industry in New Mexico is far too cavalier when it comes to keeping our air, land and water free from toxic pollution,” Allison said.

“It is abundantly clear New Mexico needs stronger rules, more monitoring and increased funding for state agencies in place as soon as possible to protect our health and environment.”

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