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Wastewater bill makes waves in Senate

A tanker hauling water heads to a water station along U.S. 285 south of Loving. A bill that would ban freshwater use in certain oil drilling operations passed the Senate Conservation Committee 5-4 on Tuesday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

A tanker hauling water heads to a water station along U.S. 285 south of Loving. A bill that would ban freshwater use in certain oil drilling operations passed the Senate Conservation Committee 5-4 on Tuesday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico regulators have encouraged the oil and gas industry to reduce reliance on scarce fresh water since the 2019 passage of the Produced Water Act.

A bill that narrowly passed the Senate Conservation Committee on Tuesday would further restrict its use in the industry, which accounts for about 1% of state water use.

SB 86, sponsored by Sens. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, and Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, would ban using fresh water for drilling “at depths lower than protected freshwater resource zones.”

Operators would need to use produced water or recycled water instead to drill and frack wells.

“I’m delighted that this came out of Conservation,” Sedillo Lopez told reporters following the committee’s 5-4 approval of the bill. “That’s a very important committee with a lot of expertise.”

Sedillo Lopez said the bill would allow the state to track the trajectory of water used by industry from its source to ultimate reuse or disposal. Legislators who voted against the bill and people who spoke in opposition countered that it would cost the state too much money and interfere with residents’ right to sell their water.

The bill now moves to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Produced water surfaces from wells along with petroleum. The salty byproduct may also contain chemicals that help prevent corrosion in wells and pipes. It is often recycled for future fracking.

Under the bill, oil companies could face fines for “causing or contributing” to spills of petroleum or wastewater.

Currently, the Oil Conservation Division can fine companies that fail to report or clean up spills. But spilling wastewater or oil is not inherently illegal.

“Toxic fracking flowback is not water,” said Artemisio Romero y Carver, an activist with Youth United for Climate Crisis Action.

The bill’s provisions would cost the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department $2.3 million annually in staff and equipment costs, according to a fiscal impact report prepared by the Legislative Finance Committee.

The Environment Department would spend $405,000 each year for new staff to implement the bill’s regulations, and $150,000 to create a new data portal.

Several industry groups oppose the bill, including the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.

Jennifer Bradfute, an attorney for Marathon Oil, said the bill’s ban on certain recycling or storage facilities is an onerous restriction on industry.

“Industry is very concerned that SB86 seeks to change the Produced Water Act without seeking technical input from recycling companies, water treatment companies, the produced water research consortium and key state agencies,” Bradfute said.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat who voted against the bill, said it doesn’t clearly define “protected fresh water resource zones.” Sedillo Lopez said that definition would be determined by state regulators.


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