Oil and gas adapts to drought as extraction grows in the Permian
Industry officials say they could lead the way on water sustainability
- Recent oil boom taxed freshwater aquifers during the drought in southern New Mexico.
- Ranchers worry expansion in extraction could threaten water availability.
- The oil and gas industry is looking into new technologies to reuse produced water.
Hydraulic fracturing allowed operators to go deeper, and into areas dense with rock formations to find the resources that power the world.
But that required one of the scarcest and most contended resources throughout New Mexico and the American Southwest: water.
Fresh groundwater deposits were tapped.
The water was pumped back down to frack, breaking up rocks and exposing new, untapped shale.
It returned brackish and toxic to consume.
Traditionally that water was disposed of.
But during the recent Permian Basin boom, public officials and environmentalist groups began calling on the industry to pump brackish water in the first place, or find a way to recycle the produced water for reuse.
With a powerful drought setting in, local anxiety and frustration grew as companies moved in, took the water, and the aquifers depleted with little natural recharge.
Local ranchers and other long-time residents worried the business that defined Eddy County's past might be overcome by the industry poised to secure the region's future.
Steve McCutcheon Sr., a rancher in southern Eddy County for the past 25 years, worried water availability could be a problem for his business during the boom.
He was hopeful that extraction operators are willing to help.
“The additional activity has had a big impact,” he said. “There’s a lot of activity. For the most part, the oil companies are cooperative.”
McCutcheon said most extraction companies are committed to smart environmental practices, but worried the industry itself can strain water availability in the very communities it profits from.
“As you eat up acreage with development, you still have to have space to feed a cow,” he said. “The development is significant. We’ve all got to get along.
“But once that land is covered in caliche, it’ll never be the same.”
To Ryan Flynn, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, it was an opportunity to innovate.
He said said the extraction industry — including oil, gas and mining — uses only about 1 percent of the nation's freshwater.
Despite the industry's small hydraulic footprint, Flynn said operators are committed to and moving toward recycling produced water.
He said already 90 percent of water used by the oil and gas industry in New Mexico is recycled.
"When we pull hydrocarbons out of the ground, water comes with it," Flynn said. "We're able to reuse that water. Everyone is well over 90 percent and approaching completely recycling water."
As agriculture and the industry continue to tax the massive Ogallala Aquifer, an underground water shale that spans from southern New Mexico to the farms of the Midwest in states like Kansas, Idaho or Nebraska, Flynn said a change is needed.
New Mexico State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn called on the industry last year to reduce pumping from the Ogalla, moving to require operators that do to submit additional documentation, to be reviewed on a "case-by-case" basis.
"The change didn't happen overnight," Flynn said. "But we view it as important. The situation with the Ogalla and groundwater depletion in the area is the issue. It's not an issue being caused by oil and gas. It is an issue for the region. We are part of that situation."
Reusing produced water not only helps preserve an essential, life-sustaining resource, Flynn said, but could boost the industry's bottom line.
"The economics are making it more and more necessary," he said. "For any industry utilizing water in its operations, the cost of getting water and distributing it is a concern. It's definitely an issue we address."
But oil and gas can't do it alone, Flynn said. He called on public officials and other area industries to work together to devise solutions to preserve the region's water supplies.
"You're not going to solve the problem by focusing on one industry," Flynn said. "If you want to solve the issue, you need to have a comprehensive discussion."
The extraction industry could be a model, he said, for other industries to learn from. The oil and gas industry is already working with the ranching industry, Flynn said, to preserve in the midst of drought.
"With our expertise, other industries could follow our examples," Flynn said. "They could learn how to put their money where their mouth is. Anyone who cares about this issue needs to follow the oil and gas industry's lead and invest in the resources needed.
"I don't think the increase in oil and gas is a threat to the ranching industry. There's nothing to support that notion."
And Flynn worried that some environmentalist groups rely on emotion to create a narrative portraying extraction as wasteful.
He said the people who should have the best solutions are those who make their livelihood from the land and ecosystem itself.
"There are a lot of groups that say they are about the environment," Flynn said. "But they don't do anything. (Industries) are actively engaged in conservation."
Junk science or a path forward?
Tim Coakley decided to do something about it too.
Owner of Roswell-based Clean Water Tech LLC, Coakley said he's struggled to convince operators that recycling the produced water is a viable option.
He's a scientist who said he invented a cheap and effective way to recycle produced water.
At first, Coakley focused on turning the wastewater into drinking water, but soon saw there was little market.
So he turned to the oil and gas industry, hoping to mitigate the waste.
"What we did is we took produced water and we were able to make drinking water," he said. "We decided there wasn't a big value in making drinking water, but we started recycling it for the industry."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends people do not consume water at 500 milligrams of saline per liter.
But Bruce Thomson, a research professor in civil engineering at the University of New Mexico said people often consume up to twice the EPA's recommendation.
He said Albuquerque's drinking water is about 400 milligrams per liter, but El Paso's is up to 1,000.
"We often drink more than the EPA's recommendation," Thomson said. "Communities don't start to complain until about 1,000 milligrams (per liter)."
Sodium is the highest problematic element of produced water, Thomson said, and desalinating is just too expensive for the industry.
Instead, Thomson said the industry should simply reuse its produced water, which he argued is essentially free for operators.
"When they switch to produced water, that's the obvious choice," he said. "Much of the industry is going that way. It's primarily cost. If they can also protect the environment, they'll do that too."
Coakley said his facility can process 100,000 barrels per day, at a cost of only one cent per barrel, while barrels of freshwater can cost up to $6 each in some parts of New Mexico.
The system uses electromagnets to suspend impurities in the wastewater, and then filter them out.
"If you can suspend, you can filter," Coakley said. "If I put a big enough magnet, if you electrically put a charge into the water, you can suspend all the bad stuff."
The "bad stuff" includes metals such as iron, along with sodium chloride, paraffin and bacteria.
What's left is mostly sulfur by the time the process is complete, and its typically taken to a landfill.
But the substance could be used as fertilizer, Coakley said, supporting the local agriculture industry.
"This whole thing could come full circle, but it's going to require people to care," he said. "You've got to care. No one cares. They'd rather give a farmer some money for the freshwater."
Companies such as Devon Energy and Yates Petroleum showed interest in the process before the bust, Coakley said, but his company faced opposition from freshwater pumpers.
"They've thrown everything at us. We've turned it all into structured fluid," he said. "We were classed as the most interruptive technology in the last five years. The guys that sell freshwater hate us. We're cutting into their revenue stream."
Thomson said Coakley's theories could also be unsupported by the science and subsequent economics.
While it is useful to remove heavy metals and other suspended solids and dissolved constituents, which Coakley's method could achieve, Thomson said the key is in the salt.
And desalinization could raise the cost of the water to up to 10 times that of drinking water, he said.
"There's been a lot of folks who have proposed using magnetism to recycle water. But most most of the materials in water are not magnetic."
But the research has continued, he said, as scientists throughout the world are working to devise ways to reduce waste during extraction operations.
"The feasibility of recycling produced water to meet our needs and demands in the southwest is highly unlikely," Thomson said. "There is not going to be a technical breakthrough to allow us to desalinate that water cost effectively. It's just not going to happen. But there are a number of opportunities to reuse the water."
Reuse could simply entail pumping the produced back down underground for further fracking, or using it in dust suppression and in small volumes to make concrete, Thomson said.
"Every time you substitute produced water for fresh water, you've helped the water balance in the arid environment," he said.
"If (oil and gas producers) can reuse the produced water, that's free. The industry as a whole is looking pretty hard at reducing the volume they have to produce, and recycling what they can."
State and feds agree to seek solutions
New Mexico's water problems amid growth in extraction reached the federal government, as the U.S. Environment Protection Agency signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in July with the State of New Mexico, to explore recycling and reusing wastewater from extraction operations.
“While underground injection certainly has its utility and place, alternatives are available that treat wastewater from oil and natural gas extraction for re-introduction into the hydrologic cycle which is especially important in arid areas suffering from drought like New Mexico,” said EPA Office of Water Assistant Administrator David Ross.
“This MOU with New Mexico is cooperative federalism in action – working directly with states and local officials to create new opportunities to provide safe water to water-scarce communities across the country.”
In 2017, records show operators in New Mexico produced about 900 million barrels of wastewater, read an EPA news release.
Ken McQueen, cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department said clarifying regulations on wastewater, and creating new opportunities to recycle, is essential to the region.
“New Mexico is currently the third largest oil producer in the United States and that oil is accompanied by even larger quantities of water," he said. "Clarifying the state and federal regulatory frameworks associated with its recycling and reuse is of the utmost importance."
New Mexico State Engineer Tom Blaine said reusing wastewater could curtail pressure on other ground water sources.
“Reuse of this water in appropriate applications has the potential to relieve the growing demand on our ground and surface water sources," he said. "For that reason alone, this effort makes absolute sense."
Coakley hopes the industry agrees, not only for his business, but to sustain New Mexico's economy and ecosystem.
He said he isn't simply trying to profit from the problem, but aims to advance technology wherever possible – and needed.
"I'm not a tree hugger, but I'm a practical individual who recognizes if you're doing something dumb, and can do something else to conserve resources, why not?" he said.
"I'm not in this for the greed. What really is important to me is if I can get this to the people, we can cut down on the use of freshwater."
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
Editor's note: This is the third story in a four story series on drought in southeast New Mexico. Look for the new story in next Sunday's edition.
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