Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made southeast New Mexico part of one of the most lucrative and productive oil basins in the world.
And that industry’s environmental footprint is coming under more intense scrutiny as the incoming presidential administration, lawmakers in the legislative session in Santa Fe next week and New Mexico state agencies all work to address the climate crisis.
As New Mexico and the Southwest grapple with the likelihood of more extended droughts and an unreliable snowpack, addressing pollution created by the industry and the resulting warming temperatures has reached the forefront of state and federal discussions.
Proposals to slash pollution include methane regulations, water reporting, and even restrictions on new drilling.
While fracking is not a new technique in New Mexico, a combination of fracking and horizontal well drilling has fueled an unprecedented oil boom in the Permian Basin.
The water issue
Ian Palmer, an Albuquerque resident, and former petroleum engineer and consultant for BP and Amoco, said he often encounters a misconception that fracking contaminates groundwater.
Palmer’s book, “The Shale Controversy,” examines the dilemma that oil companies face in reducing emissions while meeting global demand for oil and fossil fuel revenue.
“Aquifers do get polluted occasionally, but it’s pretty rare,” he said. “That happens because of well construction. If a cement job is not properly done, fluid leaks up.”
Fracking blasts a mixture of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break up a shale formation.
Office of the State Engineer data shows the industry accounts for less than 1% of New Mexico’s freshwater use. Agriculture makes up about 75% of state water use by comparison.
Still, New Mexico is a dry state that just finished its fourth-driest year on record. Every drop of water counts.
New Mexico encourages companies to recycle wastewater for future fracking instead of pumping rivers and aquifers.
Fracking also is a highly regulated engineering process with safeguards to prevent aquifer contamination, said Ryan Flynn, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.
“Number one is making sure we’re drilling wells to top-of-the-line industry standards, and that involves multiple layers of concrete and steel casing for your well,” he said.
Dealing with spills
Managing water and oil that surfaces from fracked wells is another statewide concern.
In 2019, state oil and gas companies reported 1,409 spills, down from 1,523 spills in 2018.
The amount of crude oil spilled went down, but the amount of spilled wastewater increased to 4.2 million gallons, up from about 3.7 million gallons the year before.
“We’re still developing in some fairly remote areas in the Permian and there’s not a lot of infrastructure, period, in those areas,” Flynn said. “In order to move water within the oil field, you need infrastructure. It’s not fancy, just pipes and lines, but it can be expensive.”
The State Land Office has stopped selling fresh water permits for fracking. The Oil Conservation Division now requires reports of how much water is used to complete wells.
Early reports show companies using as much as 26 million gallons to frack a single well.
Seeking reuse strategies
New Mexico State University is researching ways to treat and reuse the salty wastewater that surfaces from fracked wells.
Reusing that water could do more than ease strain on a limited freshwater supply, Palmer said.
In Oklahoma, the U.S. Geological Survey linked a rise in earthquakes since 2009 not to the actual fracking of wells, but to the subsequent injection of industry wastewater.
“Given enough time, the pressure increase created by injection can migrate substantial horizontal and vertical distances from the injection location,” the USGS reports read. “Induced earthquakes can occur 10 or more miles from injection wells. Induced earthquakes can also occur a few miles below injection wells.”
Strategic well spacing, or less injection of wastewater, can help prevent these events.
Fighting greenhouse gases
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that global temperature warming fueled by greenhouse gas emissions could increase “risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth.”
“Fixing methane leaks is a no-brainer, because methane is an awful gas with a greater warming potential than carbon dioxide,” Palmer said.
The latest state climate impact report revealed that the oil and gas industry accounts for 53% of New Mexico’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Methane leaks in southeast New Mexico were up 3% over last year, according to state data.
The state Oil Conservation Division is considering methane rules that would ban routine flaring and venting of natural gas.
Federal and state pressure
The incoming Biden administration has proposed bold climate action, including a potential ban on new drilling permits on federal lands.
Flynn, who represents the industry that contributed $2.8 billion in state revenue during the 2020 fiscal year, said such a policy could “devastate” New Mexico.
“I don’t believe the incoming administration wants to cripple the oil and gas industry or ruin the progress we’ve made in terms of energy independence in the U.S.,” he said. “Our approach is to listen, and to roll up our sleeves and understand what the policy objectives are, what the issues are, educate them on what we’re doing, and identify solutions.”
Fracking likely will be discussed and be a topic of new proposals in the upcoming state legislative session beginning next week in Santa Fe.
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat, already has pre-filed two bills that take regulatory aim at the industry.
Planned industry measures
One would prohibit any freshwater use in the oil and gas industry. Another is a “green amendment” to the state constitution that would direct New Mexico to “protect environmental resources for the benefit of all the people.”
Sedillo Lopez and Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, are also sponsoring a bill that would further define fracking and horizontal drilling, and place a four-year moratorium on new fracking permits.
A similar piece of legislation that didn’t make the proposed agenda in 2020 would have directed state agencies to study fracking impacts on land, water and cultural resources.
Flynn said blanket drilling bans are not the answer to the climate crisis.
He pointed to New Mexico’s methane rule-making efforts as a “practical” partnership between industry and environmentalists that would reduce industry emissions.
Emissions reductions are not impossible. A December 2020 U.N. report said “carbon dioxide emissions are predicted to fall up to 7% in 2020.”
The reductions are largely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has slashed global travel and disrupted new drilling.
Despite that dip in emissions, “the world is still heading for a temperature rise in excess of 3°C this century,” the report said, and “governments should pull out all the stops to implement a green recovery and strengthen their pledges before the next climate meeting in 2021.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.