The New Mexico Oil Conservation Commission (OCC) resumed hearings Thursday on rules for handling oil and natural gas drilling waste, but it alienated environmental groups by refusing to take additional testimony in the year-old case.

During the past six months, OCC has reopened the case several times in examining industry-prompted modifications to the state’s “pit rule” for handling natural gas and oil drilling and production waste. Both the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA) and the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico have sought amendments to the rule.

The New Mexico Environmental Law Center on Thursday offered expert technical witnesses, but the OCC refused to hear them, prompting law center attorney Eric Jantz to cry foul and accuse the state commission of “affording every leniency” to the oil/gas industry while “pushing the public welfare aside.”

Deliberations were scheduled to continue Friday and next Thursday, and following that some industry representatives think the OCC will make its final decision on the rule update. The environmental groups were upset that their technical witnesses were not permitted to comment on the potential effects that burying waste from oil/gas drilling would have on the groundwater and public health over time.

“Irony aside, blocking testimony on a public health issue at a public hearing is part of an unfortunate trend across the country to avoid emerging science concerning the impacts of oil/gas development,” said Bruce Baizel, Earthworks’ project director for oil/gas accountability. He alleged that industry advocates in New Mexico, New York and Colorado recently have attempted to obstruct input into public rulemakings on environmental and health impacts of oil/gas development.

“What are they afraid of? We think the truth,” he said.

In reopening deliberations in November, the OCC said the case would run into 2013, scheduling three hearings to take more public testimony (Jan. 9-11). And now there is an additional hearing Thursday.

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