FARMINGTON — Safety concerns over water used by the oil and gas industry for hydraulic fracturing dominated discussions during a Thursday meeting of state legislators at San Juan College.
State legislators heard from a panel of industry officials, scientists and related agencies during a meeting of the state's Water and Natural Resources Committee and the Drought Subcommittee at the college's Henderson Fine Arts Center.
With the local economy still recovering from a sharp downturn in 2010, one oil and gas official underscored the potential of hydraulic fracturing in a San Juan Basin shale formation.
Karin Foster, an Independent Petroleum Producers Association representative, denied charges that the industry is wasteful of water.
"In the San Juan basin, water usage numbers are high, but if you compare that with other areas around the state, it's not," Foster told the committee.
Brackish water -- which requires expensive treatment to make it potable -- is produced from drilling and can be used in the fracking process, Foster said.
"Yes, it's water, but you can't drink it," she said. "More than ever, we are using a recycle and reuse practice using earthen pits to limit the amount of water used and save water transportation costs."
The local industry follows regulatory guidelines to effectively handle the large volumes of water produced during oil and gas extraction, called produced water, she said.
She also sought to dispel the notion that fracking methods are unsafe and decried what she said was misinformation from environmentalists and the two "Gasland" movies. The movies falsely portray hydraulic fracturing as dangerous to the water supply, she said.
"Methane occurs naturally in ground water. That's just the way the earth is," Foster said. "There is no way to tell if methane levels are caused in the drilling process."
Bruce Baizel, an energy program director at Earthworks, a nonprofit group that looks into the industry's impacts on water resources in the state, expressed his concerns that the industry is hard to track because of inconsistent filings.
"This is a highly political issue and will continue to be so," Baizel said. "(It) is difficult to find good information on the water use."
Baizel admitted that the presence of methane gas in water supplies, a controversial aspect of hydraulic fracturing, was hard to attribute to drilling, but he said statistics supported the likelihood of contamination.
"The more gas wells you drill in proximity to water wells the more you are getting movement of methane gas, which moves very quickly, into those water wells," Baizel said. "But why it is happening, there is not a consensus."
State Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, said perceptions of the industry's water use are troubling.
"As we look at the amounts of water used to fracture wells, when we just lump water out there generally as water, we get out a lot of misinformation to people and we need to be careful how we do these things," Griggs said. "Using this terribly brackish water that can't be used for anything else, then the impacts on all of us are negligible."