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State regulations on toxic oil and gas wastewater are leaky at best

The 2019 Produced Water Act fails to sufficiently address the public health threat of the toxic oil and gas wastewater that the industry calls “produced water,” a brew of poisonous compounds with excessive salt. The Act was written by oil and gas industry lawyers. Legislative changes to the Act before it was passed are insufficient to protect public health, the environment and our fresh water resources.

Wastewater is produced by hydraulic fracturing of shale to produce oil and gas. It is flowback of the hydraulic fracturing fluids with secret toxic additives. It is also extremely salty ancient water that is produced with oil and gas over the lifetime of the oil well. Permian Basin wells produce more brine than oil.

The Permian Basin accounts for 96% of the state’s total annual oil and gas wastewater volume, with 3% from the San Juan Basin and 1% from northeast New Mexico. Over 160,000 acre-feet was generated in 2019, according to New Mexico Oil Conservation Division (OCD) data – over twice the amount of sewage generated annually by the Albuquerque metropolitan area.

New Mexico OCD data list 1,588 major oil and gas wastewater spills from 2016 through 2019. Almost all are preventable. Oil and gas operators attribute spills to equipment failure, corrosion, overflows, human error and even “normal operations” or no cause at all. The official data shows 14.8 million gallons of this wastewater were released by these major spills. About half was never recovered. A recent example is the high-pressure wastewater pipeline rupture during a January night that spewed brine with toxins for more than one hour and drenched a family, their home and their livestock more than 200 yards away.

The OCD was authorized by the 2019 Act to regulate produced water “in a manner protective of public health, the environment and fresh water resources.” Recently proposed rules by the Oil Conservation Division fail to attempt to do so. Oil and gas wastewater truly is a hazardous waste but is not classified as such by either federal or state law.

Two types of actions are necessary to protect fresh water: actions to prevent wasteful depletion of fresh water and actions to protect against contamination.

To preserve our limited supplies, fresh water use in the industry should be prohibited unless oil and gas operators cannot reuse wastewater, as is now being done by a few oil and gas operators. Huge amounts of fresh water are being used annually, with no reliable public reports. Reuse of oil and gas wastewater in lieu of fresh water for oil well deep drilling and hydraulic fracturing reduces the massive volumes of toxic wastewater requiring deep well disposal by the amount reused.

To protect water quality and land, this wastewater should be treated and regulated as the toxic hazardous waste that it is. Preventable spills and leaks are not acceptable. And, because the specific contaminants in produced water vary in salinity, radiation, and toxicity, regulations should require oil and gas operators to accurately disclose the contaminants in all spills and make the data public. Operators must explain the causes of future leaks and spills with a plan to prevent future occurrences. Financial consequences may incentivize industry to take preventive action.

We must have sufficient information so that the state can fulfill its responsibilities. The wells that produced the wastewater, the poisons, salt, and radionuclides it contains, its transportation, and its disposal or reuse is basic information and should be accurate and public.

Finally, reputable science concerning the safety of reusing produced water for any purpose outside of the oil and gas industry is not available. Indeed, in other states, attempts to reuse or discharge treated produced water have caused much environmental damage, including radioactive river beds coated with radium. Permian Basin oil and gas wastewater is typically 10% salt by weight, making economical treatment impossible.

Reuse outside of industry should be prohibited unless and until it can be demonstrated that such reuse is safe. Our responsibility to protect the health and welfare of our residents, and to protect the air, land and water within our beautiful, environmentally fragile state demands nothing less.

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