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Drilling boom sparks environmental worries

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The boom in New Mexico’s oil patch is pumping up state revenue and economic development in Lea and Eddy counties, but it’s also raising many red flags for environmental organizations.

Activists say the unprecedented level of investment and activity flooding into southeastern New Mexico, which elevated the state last year to third-largest oil producer in the nation, foreshadows long-term environmental problems unless balanced development plans and firm regulations are in place to protect natural resources. That includes better control of methane emissions, plus efforts to protect water, vegetation and wildlife against overzealous development and industrial accidents such as oil spills.

Government and industry say they’re working diligently to protect the environment through careful monitoring and new technologies that help limit impacts on everything from wildlife and water to methane emissions.

All sides will weigh in on those things as the Bureau of Land Management’s Carlsbad office develops a new resource management plan that it expects to conclude this year.

Until recently, activists focused more on other parts of the state, particularly methane emissions in the northwest San Juan Basin and industry development around Chaco Culture Historical National Park. But with the southeast boom gaining momentum, environmentalists are concentrating more on the oil patch, which many see as key in the battle over climate change.

Oil and gas producers are scraping off desert vegetation for new oil pads like this one to prepare for drilling. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque/Albuquerque Journal)

“It’s the elephant in the room right now,” said Thomas Singer, a western Environmental Law Center senior policy adviser. “The Permian Basin is poised to be a major global player in the industry and also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. New Mexicans need to take responsibility, because the short-term economic gains from the boom come with huge environmental risks.”

Methane emissions are a top priority for most groups, especially with the federal government rewriting Obama-era regulations to control venting, flaring and leaks from oil and gas operations. New Mexico’s San Juan and Permian basins are front and center in the debate, given the state’s high emission levels.

A new report this month from the Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense says New Mexico accounted for one-half of all the natural gas lost in the five-year period from 2012-2016.

The Environmental Defense Fund estimates 570,000 tons of methane escape here every year.

“San Juan County is the No. 1 producer of methane emissions now,” said Jon Goldstein, defense fund senior policy manager. “But projections show that over the next 10 years it will flip, with Lea County becoming the No. 1 source followed by Eddy County and then San Juan.”

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Ryan Flynn said that turns reality on its head, because natural gas production is the No. 1 factor that’s cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by replacing coal as the nation’s primary source for electric generation. In addition, industry is aggressively attacking the problem, cutting methane emissions at wellheads by 40 percent since 2006.

“Every objective measure points to major advancements and improvements from the industry side,” Flynn said.

Nevertheless, the Permian oil boom could become a key source of greenhouse gasses as all the new crude pumped there is burned as fuel, Singer said. Industry projects local production will more than triple over the next decade, to between 500 million and 600 million barrels.

“Combusting one barrel of oil creates about .43 metric tons of carbon dioxide,” Singer said. “Burning nearly 600 million barrels would equal emissions from about 64 average coal plants. To our mind, the New Mexican Permian is a story about the tragedy of a short-term fossil fuel boom fueling major contributions to climate change.”

Water is another big issue, given the voluminous amounts used in operations and the dirty, “produced” water left behind. Roughly 12.6 million gallons are used daily for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in southeast New Mexico, according to a report in March from Circle of Blue, a Michigan-based nonprofit focused on global reporting and education about water issues. Millions more are used in other types of drilling.

All that activity generates about 115 million gallons of produced water daily, about half of which is recycled for re-use and the rest injected into permanent wastewater wells.

Environmentalists worry about groundwater contamination. But the state Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department says there’s no local evidence of that to date, and operators are required to use three layers of steel and cement casing around wells to prevent ruptures.

Industry is also making strides on new technology to recycle more produced water for re-use and reduce the need for fresh water in all operations.

“In reality, oil and gas only account for about 1.4 percent of total fresh water use in New Mexico, and we’re encouraging operators wherever possible to switch from fresh water to produced water,” said department Secretary Ken McQueen.

Frequent liquid spills are also a concern. The state Oil Conservation Division documented almost 800 surface spills or leaks last year just in Eddy and Lea counties. That’s up from 500 spills statewide in fiscal year 2015. None reached groundwater, and the state is working to tighten regulations and monitoring, McQueen said. The division will hold hearings in June to improve timelines for assessment and remediation of spill sites.

Wilderness groups expect to weigh in during the 90-day comment period that opens after the BLM releases its new resource management plan, likely next month. The BLM manages more than 50 percent of the potential oil and gas lands in southeast New Mexico, and 80 percent of that is already leased for industry operations.

“The remaining acreage contains many spectacular places, including riparian areas and national parks with outdoor recreation and hiking trails,” said Nada Culver of the Wilderness Society. “We want the BLM to protect many of those natural areas.”

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