By Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press
The number of high-priority oil and natural gas wells on federal and tribal land in New Mexico has nearly doubled over the past two years, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is racing to keep up with inspections.
BLM officials in New Mexico say they have nearly 650 wells that are classified as high priorities due to their production levels, risks for contamination, the safety records of their operators and other reasons.
They insist they’re on track to have them all inspected by the end of September thanks to the creation this year of a special strike team. Similar efforts will likely be needed next year.
“There’s no end in sight,” Sheila Mallory, the BLM’s deputy state director for minerals in New Mexico, said of the oil boom that has been driving the need for more inspections in the Carlsbad and Hobbs area.
Southeastern New Mexico is now one of the most productive regions of the oil-rich Permian Basin. New teams of BLM technicians are being brought in every two weeks from other parts of the state to deal with the 428 high-priority wells in Carlsbad. So far, more than 80 percent of those wells have been inspected.
There are 161 high-priority wells in nearby Hobbs and another 55 on federal and tribal land in northwestern New Mexico.
Mallory said inspectors are caught up in most areas of the state but still have work to do in Carlsbad and Hobbs.
Nationally, an Associated Press review of government data of drilling inspections for fiscal years 2009 to 2012 shows about 40 percent of the nearly 3,500 new wells near national forests, watersheds or otherwise identified as higher pollution risks were not inspected by the BLM.
While roughly half or more of wells on federal and Indian lands in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming went unchecked, nearly two-thirds of the wells identified as high priorities on federal land in New Mexico were inspected during the four-year period.
Like BLM officials in other parts of the country, Mallory blamed a lack of manpower and budget cuts.
Environmentalists say the agency is ill-equipped to deal with the oil and gas boom in the West.
“It’s a bad situation that will only get worse as (President Barack) Obama puts the final screws to coal and looks the other way on gas development,” said John Horning, executive director of Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians.
BLM officials in New Mexico are hopeful Congress will approve a budget request that would give the agency authority to assess inspection and enforcement fees as it does with offshore drilling. The request has been made by the Obama administration for the last four years, said agency spokeswoman Donna Hummel.
“If we’re having issues with staffing during these boom periods with more high risk wells that we need to inspect, it makes sense that we would work with industry in this way to get the funding that we need in order to increase our staffing for inspections,” Hummel said.