New Mexico marks progress with oil well plugging program

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico land managers say more than 130 abandoned oil and natural gas wells have been plugged on state trust lands as part of an enforcement program that began two years ago.

Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard announced the progress Thursday, saying the savings to taxpayers are significant. She said plugging wells can cost anywhere from $50,000 to more than double that depending on the site.

“To be clear, this accountability work is having zero impact on the agency’s ability to make money,” she said in a statement. “In fact, it has been paired with the best fiscal year the State Land Office has enjoyed in its history, with multiple record-breaking months occurring since this program launched.”

New Mexico is among the top oil-producing states in the U.S., second only to Texas.

Enforcement by the State Land Office comes as New Mexico and other western states look to tap a new wave of federal funding to address the widespread problem of abandoned wells. Earlier this year, the federal government made available grants through the infrastructure spending package so states could plug and remediate orphaned wells.

New Mexico was awarded $25 million and has plans to cap 200 wells that are considered high priorities.

Under the enforcement program Garcia Richard started in 2020, the State Land Office has filed 21 enforcement lawsuits and secured the reclamation of more than a dozen oil and gas lease sites. The work includes the plugging of 134 wells by the companies legally responsible for that work.

Officials estimate there are about 1,700 orphaned and abandoned wells on state and private land across New Mexico.

Garcia Richard pointed to research done by a New Mexico consulting company that showed reclamation work related to abandoned wells could generate thousands of jobs and result in millions of dollars in state revenue from wages and taxes.

Garcia Richard, a Democrat, is running for reelection and has been pushing for more solar and wind energy development on state trust lands. Her office also has made it a priority to boost compliance among oil and gas operators through a satellite imagery program that identifies spills and ramped up auditing to ensure companies are paying the royalties that are owed.

Her Republican challenger, Jefferson Byrd, said he would ease some drilling regulations while also holding operators accountable for any environmental damage. Byrd, an environmental engineer, currently serves on the Public Regulation Commission, one of New Mexico’s most powerful regulatory bodies.