Research proposals sought for reuse of oil field wastewater

Environmental groups staged a protest outside the Roundhouse in October. The groups stacked cans labeled “Warning: produced water” in protest of oil and gas industry spills. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

An environmental and academic consortium is looking for projects to research the treatment and reuse of produced water – the salty mixture that surfaces from wells along with petroleum.

The industry wastewater, which can contain traces of fracking chemicals, has prompted statewide debate since the Legislature passed the Produced Water Act in 2019.

New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Environment Department are partners in the research team, the New Mexico Produced Water Research Consortium, which recently issued a request for project proposals.

Mike Hightower, the consortium’s program director and a civil and environmental engineer, said many companies interested in participating already employ their reuse technology in other oil-producing states.

“We are not looking at taking just regular produced water and dumping it on the ground,” Hightower said. “We’re focused on treatment first. If we put that water back into the Pecos River, it would probably have to be treated to a different quality than what we might use for rangeland grasses or industrial uses.”

The state Oil Conservation Division now requires companies to report how much water they use to drill and complete wells.

The consortium wants to build on that database by detailing fracking chemicals in produced water that would be treated before reuse, said technical research director Pei Xu.

“We have the (U.S. Geological Survey) produced water quality database, but the data is old, and it’s difficult for a regular person to process the data,” Xu said. “We are collaborating with the (national) Groundwater Protection Council to develop a data portal that meets the needs of the general public and the experts.”

Research sponsors include NGL Energy Partners, which contributed $1 million. ExxonMobil has added $250,000.

Many companies will fund their own research projects, Hightower said.

A technical steering committee will select projects in April. Review teams will follow each project’s progress and cost. The consortium could submit project reports to the Environment Department as early as September.

New Mexico’s fracked wells generate about four times as much produced water as petroleum.

Groups including Youth United for Climate Crisis Action and WildEarth Guardians are against any potential reuse of the wastewater outside of the oil field. Last October, the groups staged a produced water protest outside the state Capitol in Santa Fe.

“We are calling on you to stop the routine poisoning of our state’s precious land, water, and communities,” the groups wrote in a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Hightower said research could turn the waste into a resource for New Mexico’s drought-stricken communities.

“Our focus is making sure that if we can use this water, that we do it in a manner that’s good for New Mexico, good for the environment, and also something that addresses the water needs of the state,” he said.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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