New Mexico lawmakers frustrated as they debate oil and gas setbacks

New Mexico lawmakers frustrated as they debate oil and gas setbacks

SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – New Mexico is the nation’s second-largest oil producer, but some are concerned about the environmental and health impacts from drilling near urban areas. So, lawmakers are considering requiring separation or “setbacks” between drilling operations and protected areas.

The idea is not new. Last year, the State Land Office banned the lease of state land for drilling within one mile of schools. And some local municipalities have their own setback rules, but New Mexico is considering statewide requirements that could help protect locals’ health and push the state towards its environmental goals.

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Lawmakers in the Legislative Finance Committee gathered Tuesday to hear from experts.
“All of you are becoming risk managers,” Tami McMullin the senior toxicologist and applied public health director at CETH, an environmental consulting firm, told lawmakers.

While there’s no debating that oil production does release emissions, the health impacts of those emissions is more complex, McMullin told lawmakers. “Health outcome studies are largely inconsistent. They lack cohesiveness of their specific findings, and they’re not and were never designed to show causal evidence of oil and gas and health outcomes,” McMullin said.

The potential health impacts depend on many factors – the distance to pollutants, the the amount of exposure, the exact chemical compositions of emissions, and other hard-to-quantify mitigating factors, the experts told lawmakers. Those factors make comparing New Mexico to states with setback rules, such as Colorado, particularly difficult.

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Some lawmakers expressed frustration that there weren’t clear answers the impact of New Mexico’s oil and gas industry on locals. Others didn’t think comparisons to other states were reasonable.

“I find myself confused, frankly frustrated, with the testimony,” Representative Nathan Small (D-Doña Ana) said. “We are entirely different from Colorado, not least of which is level of production [of oil and gas] and the importance of that production.”

Some lawmakers saw the idea of setbacks as an attack on an important industry in the state,. one which funds myriad government functions.

“What we’re doing here, in this committee,” said Representative Harry Garcia (D-Bernalillo, Cibola, McKinley, San Juan, Socorro, & Valencia Counties), “is fighting oil and fighting oil until it goes away. And then we’re going to be saying, ‘How do we fund our schools? How do we fund our roads?'”

In New Mexico, some communities do already have their own setback rules. Eddy County, for example, requires 300 feet between wells and homes, schools, businesses, or churches, according to the Legislative Finance Committee. Carlsbad has setback rules as well, and some lawmakers say that’s how the state should tackle the issue – by letting local communities decide their own rules.

“To even think about doing this . . . as a statewide rule doesn’t make any sense to me. If there’s going to be any kind of action taken, it needs to be per locale,” said Cathrynn Brown (R- Eddy & Lea Counties).

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