New Mexico Governor taking heat over wastewater treatment plan

Environmentalists are coming out against the New Mexico Governor’s plan to treat oil and gas wastewater before returning it to the earth, calling it “reckless.”

The Carlsbad Current-Argus reported the story this week.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s plan to address oil and gas waste water drew criticism from environmentalists as the State begins public outreach efforts to find uses for produced water outside of the energy industry.

WildEarth Guardians, a national environmentalist group, questioned the idea of treating the water, which it called toxic and dangerous outside of oil and gas operations, and called on the State to instead enact regulations to curb the initial use of fresh water by the industry.

Climate and Energy Program Director Jeremy Nichols said the water was untreatable and any efforts to return it to the environment on the Earth’s surface was “reckless.”

Nichols pointed to the Produced Water Act, signed into state law during the State’s 2019 legislative session, which directed State agencies to begin addressing the issue while establishing oil and gas operators’ ownership of their waste water and penalties for spills and other incidents.

But nowhere in the law, he argued, was their language that allowed for the release of the waste back into New Mexico’s surface water.

“Dumping frack water into streams and drinking waters, and onto crops would devastate New Mexico’s health and environment,” he said.

“The Governor needs to rethink this reckless plan and reconsider dumping waste that is too toxic to treat into the state’s irreplaceable waters.”

The recent oil and gas boom in New Mexico, which was credited for creating a $2.2 billion in revenue to the State’s budget, was driven by the practice of hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – and subsequent horizontal drilling.

Fracking is the process where a combination of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into underground rocks, or shale, to break up the formations and extract oil and natural gas from harder-to-reach areas.

But it produces a lot of waste water, and most fracking operations use primarily fresh water.

One barrel of oil, or 42 gallons, generated this way, creates at least half a barrel of waste water, per a 2015 study from Duke University.

As wells age and deeper shale is targeted, experts estimated a barrel of oil could mean up to five barrels of water.

The waste was traditionally injected back underground using disposal wells, but companies recently began developing technology to treat the water to a quality reusable in future fracking operations.

Demand for fresh water by the industry was only expected to grow in the Permian Basin, situated beneath southeast New Mexico and West Texas.

A study released in October from Rystad Energy – an energy research and data firm – showed the demand for fracking water could increase by 30 percent by 2022 across the nation, with demand in the Permian growing by 53 percent.

In 2019, the study predicted the demand would reach 4.9 billion barrels of water, and 2.28 billion in the Permian.

“The increase in water demand is mostly driven by increases in forecasted completions activity, and the continued trend towards longer laterals,” read the report.

As part of her agenda to address climate change and reform state regulations on oil and gas, Lujan Grisham announced in August a collaboration between the New Mexico Environment Department and New Mexico State University to research and develop methods of treating the waste water for use in other sectors such as agriculture, or to clean in for discharge back onto the surface.

NMSU was awarded a 5-year, $100 million grant in September from the U.S. Department of Energy to create an Energy-Water Desalination Hub at the University’s College of Engineering.

“New Mexico’s innovation in this area is and will continue to be the envy of other states,” Lujan Grisham said. “Turning this waste product into a commodity is good for preserving fresh water resources, good for compact requirements with other states, good for conservation purposes, good for local and county governments; it’s good for small and large producers, it’s good for agriculture.

“It’s good for New Mexico, and it represents an exciting leap forward.”

At an annual meeting of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association in Santa Fe, Lujan Grisham touted the benefits of oil and gas in the state, and vowed regulators would work closely with the oil and gas industry to develop and enforce state law, per a report from the Associated Press.

“They will not be at cross purposes, they are very clear that they work for you,” Lujan Grisham said during her remarks, per the report. “And if that is not occurring, I need to know about it.”

In its letter to Lujan Grisham, WildEarth Guardians worried Lujan Grisham’s comments indicated the State’s efforts were intended not to protect the environment but to support the oil and gas industry.

“It’s clear the New Mexico Environment Department isn’t interested in better regulation, their aim is to simply re-label toxic frack water as safe to drink,” Nichols said.  “This isn’t about protecting New Mexico, it’s about appeasing the oil and gas industry. It has to stop.”

The letter called on the state to “pause” its efforts to reuse oil and gas waste water.

“The climate crisis is already ravaging New Mexico and projections indicate the state faces increasing water shortages and more intense droughts. The last thing the New Mexico should be contemplating is allowing the oil and gas industry to poison the state’s dwindling, irreplaceable water supplies,” the letter read.

“We urge your Administration to instead focus on developing and implementing aggressive and effective water conservation and watershed resilience strategies to meet our climate challenges.”

The first in a series of meetings where the New Mexico Environment Department and the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department solicited public opinion on addressing oil and gas waste water was held Tuesday in Albuquerque.

Source: Carlsbad Current-Argus.