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New Mexico’s oil counties lead nation in low-producing, high-polluting wells, report says

New Mexico Permian Basin wells

Story by Adrian Hedden, Carlsbad Current-Argus.  Two of New Mexico’s most productive oil and gas counties also contain its most low-producing or “marginal” wells while also leading the nation, per recent research, which could bring higher levels of pollution than their higher-producing counterparts.

A marginal or “stripper” oil and gas well is typically defined as one that generates up to 15 barrels of oil per day.

Eddy and Lea counties have more of these smaller wells than any other part of the state, per research from the Environmental Defense Fund, with 9,448 and 8,885 stripper wells within their respective boundaries.


The two Permian Basin counties were also third and fourth in the nation for low-producing wells, which are believed to release more methane than other facilities, followed by Andrews County along southeast New Mexico’s border with Texas in the middle of the Permian Basin.

That means three out of the top five counties in the U.S. for marginal wells were in the Permian – the U.S.’ most active oilfield – while the top two were in Pennsylvania which holds the nation’s leading natural gas basin the Marcellus Shale.

About 70 percent of Eddy County’s total wells were defined as marginal, per the report, while 67 percent of Lea County’s were considered low producing, per the research published July 19.

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About 82 percent of Andrews County’s wells are classified as marginal, the report read.

Nationwide, the report showed more than 500,000 stripper wells throughout the country, producing about 6 percent of U.S. oil and gas while contributing more than half of the industry’s methane emissions.

Methane is a primary element of natural gas extracted for energy production, and a greenhouse with a climate impact believed to have up to 100 times the global warming impact as carbon dioxide (CO2).

CO2 is the most common greenhouse gas, per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, followed by methane.

Methane’s prevalence in air pollution and commonality as a product of oil and gas production led it be at the center of New Mexico’s and the federal government’s recent efforts to reduce air pollution from fossil fuel production.

The prevalence of low-producing but potentially high-polluting oil wells in the Permian could be part of what led the EPA and New Mexico Environment Department to recently focus regulatory efforts on that region to reduce its impact on air pollution, said Kayley Shoup with Carlsbad-based environmental group Citizens Caring for the Future.

She said the region saw a dramatic upswing in fossil fuel production amid increased demand on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia – itself a top global energy producer –being removed from global markets after its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

That could mean more air pollution, Shoup said, and need to crack down on polluters, especially stripper wells.

She said research showed up to 22,000 people live within a half mile radius of marginal wells sites, worried they could pose serious health risks to the “frontline” communities living nearby.

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“It makes me sad and a little nervous. That comes with health impacts. There’s people living near these marginal wells,” Shoup said. “You think these wells are providing energy security, but they’re only producing 6 percent of oil and gas and producing half of these emissions that are warming the climate.

“The fact that we allow so many of these, they’re not being properly remediated. That’s terrifying. I don’t think we’re going in the right direction.”

Mark Omara, EDF scientist and author of the group’s April national study on emissions from smaller wells said reducing methane from stripper wells was important in reducing the pollutant nationwide.

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“The methane footprint of these small wells is enormous and can’t be ignored,” he said. “Our research shows that the total methane emitted from the country’s half-million low-producing wells has the same impact on the climate every year as 88 coal-fired power plants.”

Part of New Mexico’s strategy to address air pollution from oil and gas saw the NMED finalizing and enacting new rules earlier this year requiring operators in the state to increase their emissions reporting, detection, and repair.

Larger wells in New Mexico were required to report quarterly, with smaller reporting once or twice a year, per the new regulations, and all wells within 1,000 feet of a home or occupied structure – regardless of size – were required to submit quarterly reports.

More: Permian Basin oil and gas wells could be on the decline as prices fall, market struggles

Those kinds of requirements were what led the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico (IPANM) to file an appeal in court against NMED’s new rules after they took effect Aug. 5, citing the economic hardship the group that represents smaller operators said it would bring to “mom-and-pop” oil and gas producers.

The Association advocated for exemptions for stripper wells throughout NMED’s rulemaking process which ultimately removed most of such concessions included in the regulation’s initial draft.

“An initial draft of the rule allowed for a reasonable regulatory framework for low-volume production, however, the state removed that provision in the 11th hour after pressure from out-of-state environmental groups who subverted a good-faith collaborative stakeholder effort, said the Association’s Executive Director Jim Winchester as the language was finalized in April.

For Shoup, financial impacts on small oil and gas companies were not ideal, but a necessary effect of what she said was to be effective regulations at the state level to reduce pollution.

“I think it’s discouraging to see the IPANM and operators in this area do this,” Shoup said. “They’re not being good neighbors. Not all companies want to do their due diligence to protect the people in the Permian Basin.

“At the end of the day, we’re seeing global warming, wildfires, and floods. At what point do you say this is doing more harm than good?”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: New Mexico oil counties lead nation in low-producing wells, report says

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