Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The potential to turn wastewater from the oil industry into a resource has sparked conversation in arid New Mexico.
State agencies held a public meeting about “produced water” Tuesday in Albuquerque. It was the first of five to be held in October and November.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, blasts water, sand and chemicals into the ground to access oil. For every 42 gallons of oil, another 168 to 294 gallons of produced water come from a well, according to the New Mexico Environment Department.
New Mexico wells in the Permian Basin generated 42 billion gallons of the wastewater last year. It’s high in salt and may have trace amounts of fracking chemicals.
James Kenney, NMED Cabinet secretary, said the state is not ignoring the complexities of treating produced water.
“Legacy issues in New Mexico are monumental, with uranium and now the emerging PFAS contamination,” he said. “We must be in a position that allows us to be in charge of (produced water) every step of the way.”
For decades, oil and gas companies have disposed of produced water at injection wells. But in light of the recent oil boom and the ever-increasing demand for water to recover oil, New Mexico encourages companies to recycle the waste product for drilling and fracking. Recycling can reduce dependence on scarce fresh water.
The Produced Water Act was signed into state law this year. The law clarifies liability for the wastewater during treatment and transportation. It also requires an NMED permit for any produced water use outside the energy industry, such as crop irrigation or a municipal drinking water supply.
Before permits can be issued, the state must develop regulations.
“Nobody is talking about using untreated produced water,” Dr. Jeri Sullivan Graham, a University of New Mexico research professor who studies water treatment, told the Journal before the meeting. “All water in the state should be accounted for. We need to make sure science carries that day, and that we do this right the first time.”
Many meeting attendees opposed even the state’s first steps to research the wastewater. One commenter said irrigating New Mexico crops with produced water could harm the reputation of the state’s agriculture and food products.
Miya King-Flaherty of the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter said non-industry use of produced water would be a “potential disaster with cascading effects” that would “condemn” New Mexico to fossil fuel dependence.
State agencies said use of the water would not get ahead of the science or technology needed to treat and regulate.
NMED and New Mexico State University recently announced a partnership to research produced water.
“It’s exciting that we are able to leverage experts right here in our state,” said Rebecca Roose, Water Protection Division director for NMED. “We’re having conversations and doing a lot of homework.”
The program is currently industry-funded, according to program director Mike Hightower, but is seeking Bureau of Reclamation or state Legislature funds.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit reportforamerica.org to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.