New Mexico considers setback requirements for oil wells near schools and day care

SANTA FE, N.M. – A bill to ban oil and gas production within a mile (1.6 kilometers) of schools and day care centers across New Mexico is among the first published proposals as the state Legislature prepares for a 30-day session that could bring an overhaul to fundamental oil and gas regulations.

Regulators in the No. 2 U.S. state for oil production are considering reforms including setback requirements aimed at protecting children from pollution, amid pressure from environmental groups and other advocates to bolster pollution controls and fulfill constitutional obligations to regulate the industry.

Published Wednesday, a bill introduced by Democratic state Rep. Debra Sariñana of Albuquerque would halt approval of new drilling permits within a mile of school facilities starting in July of this year. It also would halt most oil and natural gas operations in those zones by 2028.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham directed the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to consult with a variety of stakeholders and develop its own robust set of proposed reforms to the New Mexico Oil and Gas Act, which regulates production of the two fossil fuels.

The results of that process will include the establishment of setbacks from schools, hospitals, medical facilities, multifamily housing, single family homes and water bodies statewide.

Lujan Grisham spokesperson Maddy Hayden said in an email Wednesday that the distance of the setbacks has yet to be determined. A draft of the agency’s proposal includes language that refers to a setback of 2,640 feet (0.80 kilometers) for schools, homes and health care facilities.

Sariñana, a retired high school math teacher, said her proposal would likely affect about 800 existing wells out of more than 65,000 across the state.

“It’s about our kids. This year it’s about our kids,” she said.

The state and governor are being sued by environmental groups over alleged failures to meet constitutional provisions for protecting against oil and gas pollution. The groups have pointed to buffers around schools, homes and health care facilities as one way the state could meet its obligations. Plaintiffs and other advocates say that limiting the buffer to just a half-mile doesn’t go far enough.

In a letter sent to the state Oil Conservation Division in December, they argued that research shows a setback of at least one mile is necessary to protect public health. As setback distances decrease, they said the likelihood and magnitude of exposure risk for people who live, work, go to school or frequent places near oil and gas production increases.

“We feel this should be a no-brainer,” Gail Evans, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. She represents the plaintiffs in the constitutional case.

While the State Land Office has imposed its own buffer around schools, Evans and others say the mandate should be expanded beyond state trust land and that it has been failures by the state Legislature to address the issue of contamination and pollution that led to the legal challenge.

The Legislature convenes from Jan. 16 though March 15 to approve an annual budget. Other initiatives can be considered at the discretion of the governor.

Published legislative proposals also include ban on the use of fresh water in fracking and enhance oversight and sanctions for spills by well operators.

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Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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