Study: New Mexico oil and gas production threatens scarce water resources

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

A recent boom in oil and gas production, driven by hydraulic fracturing, left environmentalists concerned that the already limited water resources in the state could be increasingly threatened as extraction operations grow.

A report from the Washington, D.C.–based Center for American Progress (CAP) said New Mexico suffers from water stress equivalent to the United Arab Emirates – the 10th-most water stressed country in the world.

Up to 2.6 million gallons of water are used to frack a single well, read the report.

In New Mexico, virtually all new oil and gas leases employ fracking in operations.

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About 96.3 percent of oil and gas leases, or 387 out of 402 leases, in New Mexico were in “extremely high water-stressed areas.”

That’s more than triple the national average of 31 percent, per the data, while 33 percent of the nation’s oil and gas leases were “high water-stressed areas.”

Nevada had the second most, with 81 percent in high stress areas, and 11.8 percent in extremely high-stress areas.

Wyoming was third with 63.4 percent of its leases in water-stressed areas, while Montana was third with 57 percent, records show.

Colorado was at 34 percent, and Utah was at 18.7 percent – the lowest of the Western oil-producing study used in the study.

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Oil and gas industry seeks solutions

Jenny Rowland-Shea, author of the study and a senior policy analyst for Public Lands at CAP worried the oil and gas industry’s water usage could deprive other industries such as agriculture of a vital resource.

“The expansion of fossil fuel development on U.S. public lands could endanger the quantity and quality of water that is available to farmers, towns, and other water users in the region,” she wrote.  

“As the gap between water supply and water demand narrows across the West, farmers, ranchers, communities, and policymakers are working to reduce their water footprint and find efficiencies.”

More:New Mexico oil and gas land sale denounced by activists, business owners

She called on federal agencies like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages federal land use in the West, to enact stricter policies to protect watersheds from the impacts of oil and gas.

“The BLM has not developed adequate guidance for how the agency should take water impacts into consideration for oil and gas leasing decisions,” Rowland-Shea wrote.

“As a result, the agency is inconsistent in whether and how it weighs the potential impacts on water quantity and quality in environmental analyses and resource management planning.”

More:Oil and gas waste water companies merge amid Permian Basin boom

Robert McEntyre, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association said the industry is already working to develop new ways of handling water and reduce the use of freshwater without added federal regulations.

He said industry-driven solutions are being developed as companies in the Permian look to recycle and reuse flowback and produced water in operations.

“This is something that we are addressing everyday that we produced oil and gas in New Mexico,” McEntyre said. “This is an issue throughout the West. It just happens that we in New Mexico are blessed with oil and natural gas.”

More:Environmentalists demand higher rates for oil and gas leases, question Trump's policy

He said the CAP study failed to consider what companies, even oil and gas majors such as Devon and Chevron, have done to address water usage.

“Actions speak louder than words,” McEntyre said. “If they were to look at what companies are doing on the ground, they would have a greater appreciation for how the industry manages water. We’re ensuring that we’re using as little freshwater as possible.”

New Mexico lawmakers fight drought

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) sponsored a bill in the U.S. Senate, with support from U.S. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and New Mexico’s three Democrat U.S. Representatives: Xochitl Torres Small, Ben Ray Lujan and Deb Haaland.

The Western Water Security Act would provide more federal funding for drought mitigation, while allowing State and Native American groups more power to declare drought emergencies.

More:New Mexico accuses Permian Basin oil and gas operators of violating state air quality laws

The bill would also reauthorize the federal Cooperative Watershed Management Program, a program that could bring experts from across the country together to find new ways of addressing water scarcity.

“It is past time that Congress address this problem, which is hitting our most vulnerable communities the hardest, to ensure that future generations can sustain life in the American West,” Udall said.

“Particularly in an era of prolonged droughts and climate disruption, we must use the best available science to protect and conserve our limited freshwater supplies.”

More:Chevron recycles, reuses fracking water from oil and gas as Permian production booms

Meanwhile at the state level, the New Mexico Legislature voted into law the Produced Water Act during the last legislative session in January.

The Act specified how oil and gas companies take ownership of their waste water and set standards for the handling of water before and after fracking well completions.

And Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a consortium between the state and New Mexico State University to study how produced water could be treated and reused outside of oil and gas in other industries like agriculture.

More:Oil and gas water facilities coming to Permian, production continues growth in New Mexico

“New Mexico’s innovation in this area is and will continue to be the envy of other states,” Lujan Grisham said. “Turning this waste product into a commodity is good for preserving fresh water resources, good for compact requirements with other states, good for conservation purposes, good for local and county governments; it’s good for small and large producers, it’s good for agriculture.

“It’s good for New Mexico, and it represents an exciting leap forward.”

The move could propel New Mexico to the forefront of produced water technology and innovation, McEntyre said, and the industry intends to work closely with the state.

“New Mexico is really on the front line with this issue. The governor at the legislature are giving us some tools to continue being a leader,” he said. “As and industry, we embrace opportunities to network and research the next wave of technological innovation.

“It not just helps us do our jobs, but helps reduced our environmental footprint.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.