New Mexico asks Biden administration to resolve drilling policy 'confusion'

(Reuters) - New Mexico officials are asking the Biden administration to resolve confusion in the state’s oil and gas industry over a 60-day pause on allowing state-level staff to issue approvals for new federal lands drilling.

In a letter dated Feb. 9 but seen by Reuters on Wednesday, Sarah Cottrell Propst, secretary of New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, asked the Department of Interior to clarify how right-of-way permits fit into the policy.

The order, issued Jan. 20, stripped Interior agencies and bureaus of their authority to issue new drilling leases or permits while it reviews the federal minerals leasing program as part of a broader agenda to fight climate change. The order did not limit existing operations and did not extend to permits necessary to preserve health and safety.

“There is confusion in the field regarding which approvals fall within these categories,” Cottrell Propst said in the letter, adding that companies had reported “many examples of approvals not moving forward.”

An Interior Department spokesman would not comment on the letter. All leases and permits are being reviewed and approved by agency officials in Washington, according to the department.

The state is asking the department to clarify whether right of way permits are considered existing operations, since they are often required after a company has been issued a drilling lease and permit.

New Mexico is a checkerboard of federal, state and private lands, and oil and gas producers commonly seek rights of way to cross multiple types of properties with wells, water lines, roads and utilities.

“It’s not uncommon to need additional approvals,” Adrienne Sandoval, the state’s Oil Conservation Division director, said in an interview with Reuters this week.

Reporting by Nichola Groom and Jennifer Hiller; Editing by Stephen Coates