By Deborah Baker, The Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A proposal to raise the fines – from 1935 levels – for water pollution by oil and gas operators has been rejected again by the Legislature, with opponents complaining it would burden New Mexico’s premier industry.

It was the second time in recent years there has been an attempt to update penalties that were enacted 78 years ago in the Oil and Gas Act and haven’t been increased since then.

A much broader bill introduced in 2009 also failed.

House Bill 286 went down Wednesday in the House, with 32 members voting in favor of it and 36 against.

“It’s perceived as somehow disrespectful of the oil and gas industry and not recognizing their contribution – when, in fact, it’s not that at all,” Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, said Thursday.

Unless the bill were reconsidered – which appeared to be a long shot – its failure likely dooms it for the current legislative session, which wraps up March 16. There is no similar measure in the Senate.

The bill’s proponents said it’s long past time to increase fines.

“The fact that the New Mexico Oil and Gas Act has not been updated in more than 75 years is an atrocity,” said Leanne Leith, political director of Conservation Voters New Mexico. “It is troubling that even in a time of severe drought, our elected officials won’t take reasonable steps to protect our water.”

Chasey and other supporters said fines are currently so low they may simply be considered the cost of doing business by a few operators who repeatedly violate the law.

And they argued that penalties under the Oil and Gas Act are considerably less than those provided for under state laws governing water quality, hazardous waste, air quality and hard-rock mining.

Among other changes, civil penalties for unauthorized discharges of contaminants would be increased under the legislation from $1,000 to $10,000 for a violation or for each day of a continued violation.

Opponents of the bill said it would open oil and gas producers to potentially unlimited liability.

“We would not be in the economic position we are in currently but for the contributions of the oil and gas industry,” said Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque. “I’m very wary of any legislation that would impose undue burdens on that industry.”

“Oil and gas is one of the bright spots of our state right now,” said Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington.
Read more on the Albuquerque Journal.