A state district judge in New Mexico last week handed the state’s oil and gas industry a new year’s present, putting a halt to legal appeals of ongoing industry efforts to revise rules for handling drilling and production waste, the so-called “pit rule.”

A state Oil Conservation Commission (OCC) hearing on the industry efforts is scheduled for Jan. 23 in Santa Fe. The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA) had asked for the legal appeals process to be stopped so that the state commission could administratively deal with the issue.

The “pit rule” was initially established by the OCC under former Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration in 2008, to govern how producers would handle wastes from drilling operations in buried tanks, sumps, pits and closed-loop systems. Since then a more conservative Republican regime has been established under Gov. Susana Martinez.

Last year the NMOGA asked the state OCC to modify rules that regulate fluids handling in buried tanks, sumps, pits and closed-loop systems (see NGI, Oct. 10, 2011). The producer group filed a motion in state district court to stay action on a lawsuit filed by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

Spokesman Wally Drangmeister said the group was trying to “ease rules that are making us uncompetitive, but we’re doing it in such a way that we still believe is protective of the environment.”

Critics contend that the changes proposed by the association would eliminate almost all references in the state rules to closed-loop systems, which the industry claims are expensive; the environmental groups counter that there is no hard data to back up that contention. There is also concern about changes in how low-chloride waste is handled and a provision allowing operators to make “reasonable estimates” about groundwater wells when specific information is lacking.

“There would still be cases where closed-loop systems would be required; we’re not advocating eliminating them, but only when they are necessary for environmental protection,” said Drangmeister, noting that in the southeast part of the state the groundwater is located long distances away from the drilling.

An attorney for the nonprofit Environmental Law Center expressed disappointment in the latest district court action. A “change in the political climate” with a GOP governor was a factor in the ruling, according to law center attorney Eric Jantz.

Environmentalists said producers are trying to gut needed protections against groundwater contamination. Association officials contend that by modifying the rules when and if it can be done safely, more wells will be drilled, which means more positive economic stimulus. Jantz further argued that the administrative route ends up in what he thinks is an “endless cycle of rulemakings, appeals and then more rulemaking without ever having any real resolution.”

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