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Increased fracking raises water supply issue

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

FARMINGTON – The growth in hydraulic fracturing to expand oil and gas production in New Mexico is raising fresh questions about the amount of the state’s scarce water needed to carry out the task, state legislators said Thursday.

But a three-hour hearing on the subject involved more questions than answers. “We don’t know the full picture,” said Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” involves injecting a high pressure solution of water, sand and chemicals down a well to free trapped oil and gas deep underground.

It has led to record levels of oil production in New Mexico, primarily in the state’s southeast, which overlies the Permian Basin oil reserves. That has led to oil companies buying water from farmers and cities, according to State Engineer Scott Verhines, the state’s top water management official.

But members of the Legislature’s Water and Natural Resources Committee heard a wide range of numbers about how much water is really being used.

Hydraulic fracturing has been used in the industry for decades. But new techniques have greatly expanded its application, allowing oil and gas producers to extract deposits that were previously inaccessible.

Along with that bounty of new production, however, have come concerns about the amount of water needed when drilling is done in arid states, along with questions about the risk of contamination.

In the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico, where Thursday’s hearing was held, water use in coal mining, power plant cooling and agriculture dwarf the use of water in the oil and gas sector, committee members were told.

Statewide, only one-fourth of 1 percent of the state’s water is used in the oil and gas industry, said Karin Foster of the Independent Petroleum Producers Association.

But that overall figure masks potential problems in small, water-scarce localities where drilling is underway, Egolf said.

The problem, according to Egolf and others, is that the state lacks comprehensive data on how much water is being used now in hydraulic fracturing operations, how it has increased in recent years, and how it might rise as operations expand. That question is especially pertinent in the San Juan Basin, which oil and gas experts say could be on the verge of a major increase in hydraulic fracturing operations.

“Hydraulic fracturing is likely to be a part of our future,” said L. Greer Price, director of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.

Price said the Bureau of Geology is launching a project to begin to collect more data on the issue.