Third in a 5-part series: Behind the Boom
Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
LOVING – Craig Ogden has farmed alfalfa and cotton in southeastern New Mexico for nearly three decades, and he’s seen the acreage used for farming dwindle as neighbors seize lucrative offers from the oil and gas industry.
The northern border of his property teems with oil wells drilled in the past five years. Dozens of natural gas flares send bright orange flames into the sky.
“Fresh water for sale” signs dot the nearby highway as trucks loaded with water tanks speed past.
Oil isn’t the only “liquid gold” in the Permian Basin. Energy companies need water – and lots of it – to retrieve oil, and they pay millions of dollars to pump, store and recycle water.
Since the latest energy boom began, many of Ogden’s lifelong neighbors havesold their water rights or farms to oil companies.
“You can’t blame them,” he said. “This is a tough business, and those guys will pay big bucks for water.”
Production of oil and natural gas uses less than 1% of New Mexico’s total fresh water use, according to the 2015 water use report by the Interstate Stream Commission. But as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has become the norm in the state’s southeastern corner, the volume of water flowing through the oil fields has skyrocketed. In 2020, the commission will release its next water use report, which should provide updated industry water numbers.
Water demand for oil and gas drilling operations has also prompted legal battles. Former state Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn filed a lawsuit last year alleging too much underground water was being pumped under temporary permits for energy use.
How much water?
As a farmer in arid New Mexico, Ogden, president of the state’s Farm and Livestock Bureau, is always thinking about water.
“I am concerned about the amount of water they use for fracking,” he said. “Our water is getting saltier, and the (Black) river doesn’t flow like it used to because of all the pumping.”
Irrigation for agriculture, which is mostly a cattle and alfalfa market, demands more than 70% of the regional water supply. But the booming oil sector is shifting the dynamics of water use. In many places, oil companies have bought water rights that were dormant for years.
Water use per well in the Permian Basin of New Mexico and Texas increased by 770% from 2011 to 2016, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The majority of water – as much as 2.6 million gallons – is used in the few weeks it takes to drill and complete a well. Environmental Protection Agency numbers show about 22.3 million gallons of water is used each day for fracking in the region.
About 95% of oil and gas leases offered by the Bureau of Land Management in New Mexico in the past two years are in extremely high water-stress areas, according to a Center for American Progress report.
That means most energy leases are on the market where more than 80% of the water supply is withdrawn each year.
“When you’re talking about water in a water-stressed place, it’s a zero-sum game,” said Jenny Rowland-Shea, senior public lands policy analyst for the Center for American Progress and author of the report. “There is potential to threaten water supplies for ranchers, farmers and communities, which means the BLM and federal government need to pay more attention to the impact of leases on watersheds.”
The state is ramping up pressure to recycle fracking wastewater instead of using fresh water. Energy companies have responded by investing in recycling technology and infrastructure.
Ryan Flynn, CEO of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association and former Environment Department secretary, said the industry has worked to dramatically reduce its fresh water use since the record oil production began.
“Companies understand they have a critical opportunity to be more water-efficient,” Flynn said. “When we have a conversation about water usage as a state, if you focus just on oil and gas water usage, you will barely move the needle. We have smart companies, scientists and engineers flocking to New Mexico, looking at the big picture of water and making things work.”
Vast networks of pipelines carry water throughout the oil fields of Eddy and Lea counties, and water trucks traverse the miles and miles of dusty dirt roads to service drilling rigs. Water recycling facilities can be seen among the wells and pump jacks.
More than 600 water haulers have permits with the state’s Oil Conservation Division.
Fracking blasts water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break up the shale formation and retrieve oil trapped in tiny pockets. Wastewater that surfaces along with the oil or natural gas is labeled “produced water.”
For every barrel of oil generated, 4 to 7 barrels of salty produced water surfaces. That means 168 to 294 gallons of produced water for every 42 gallons of oil.
Shift to recycling
Produced water was once viewed as a burdensome byproduct. Companies disposed of wastewater by injecting it into underground wells. The industry attitude was that fresh, pure water was best for retrieving oil.
But now oil industry wastewater is being viewed in a new light.
“The stresses of climate change, drought and increased fracking demand have transformed produced water into a resource, which is astounding,” said Jeri Sullivan Graham, a research professor at the University of New Mexico. “We’ve come a long way in our thinking about this water.”
Oil companies are increasingly recycling the wastewater for future operations instead of accessing new supplies.
The Produced Water Act, passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor this year, allows operators to own the byproduct so they can easily sell to recycling companies. That clarifies who owns wastewater during transport and who is liable for spills.
In 2018, 1 billion barrels of produced water (equivalent to about 60,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools) came out of New Mexico’s oil and natural gas fields.
“In an arid state like New Mexico, we need to think outside the box and be on the cutting edge,” Flynn said. “This legislation creates a regulatory framework to help the state identify what could be another source of water.”
In September, the New Mexico Environment Department and New Mexico State University announced a partnership to research produced water uses in oil fields and elsewhere. The consortium has provoked mixed reactions in the state.
“Don’t call it produced water; call it fracking waste, because that’s what it is,” said WildEarth Guardians advocate Rebecca Soebel at an Albuquerque produced water meeting hosted by the state Environment Department in October. “We don’t want this toxic waste.”
Fracking chemicals are used to prevent corroded pipes and break up the shale. Several layers of well casing protect groundwater from liquids and chemicals flowing through the well.
In New Mexico, companies are not required to disclose all the chemicals they use to retrieve hydrocarbons. Many large operators such as Halliburton, Chevron and ExxonMobile disclose their chemical mixes to online databases such as Fracfocus.
Some chemicals, such as radium, that emerge in produced water occur naturally.
The research partnership is funded by energy companies. NGL Energy Partners, a water recycler in the Permian Basin, pledged $1 million to the efforts. Program director Mike Hightower said the group wants to add state and federal funding.
Many scientists and state leaders believe the research will address the reality of New Mexico’s water supply and demand.
Nichole Saunders, attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, which studies chemicals in oil wastewater, cautioned against letting the promise of more water in a dry state cause agencies to overlook the uncertainties of produced water. But she said the research consortium is a “good place to start.”
“Water is so different from state to state, and most of our current produced water data comes from outside New Mexico,” Saunders said. “The reality is that the science, tools, technology are not ready for extensive produced water use outside industry. There is a risk to health and the environment if regulations get ahead of the science. This cannot be rushed.”
Farmer Craig Ogden knows how to adjust to changing times. He has lived through historic droughts and floods that threatened to devastate his crops. He is learning to live with the region’s changing demands for water.
A company offered to pay to build a water pipeline through Ogden’s property, but he turned down the offer. And just a few months ago, one of those speeding water trucks veered off the road and plowed right through a neighbor’s alfalfa field.
“Everyone is in a hurry,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
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.