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WildEarth Guardians official: 'You don't frack your way to cleaner water'

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FARMINGTON — Oil and gas production in New Mexico draws millions of gallons of water from deep under the earth to the surface, but only a fraction of that water is put to use – and that use is currently limited to oil and gas production.

However, as drought conditions become more and more common, the state has started looking for ways to put that saltwater to beneficial use.

The Produced Water Act that became law earlier this year provided clarification on liability for spills that may occur while produced water is being transported. It also requires the New Mexico Environment Department to permit uses of produced water outside of the oil and gas industry. 

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Regulations must be developed before any permits can be issued and the New Mexico Environment Department has partnered with other state agencies to gather public input prior to beginning a rule-making process. This included a meeting on Nov. 19 at San Juan College.

“It’s very important that this is the beginning of a conversation, not the beginning and end of a conversation,” New Mexico Environment Department Water Protection Division Director Rebecca Roose told the audience.

Proponents of using produced water outside of oil and gas production say it could help mitigate drought conditions. Meanwhile, opponents say not enough is known about the toxins in the water or how it could impact aquifers and human health.

What is produced water?

New Mexico Oil Conservation Division Director Adrienne Sandoval said produced water includes both flowback and formation water. She described the formation water as old seawater trapped inside the formations and the flowback water is some of the water pumped into the well during drilling that then comes back up with the oil.

Sandoval said a Duke University study found that more than 90 percent of the produced water is formation water. That means the water tends to have a lot of salt in it, however, how much salt is in the produced water depends on the basin. Sandoval said the produced water in the San Juan Basin tends to be less saline than water in the Permian Basin.

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She said for every barrel of oil — or 42 gallons — drawn out of the ground in New Mexico, there are four barrels of produced water.

That means billions of barrels of produced water are drawn out of the ground each year in New Mexico.

What currently happens to produced water in New Mexico?

About 10 percent of the produced water is recycled and used in place of freshwater for oil and gas production, according to Sandoval. Another 30 percent is pumped into the ground for enhanced oil recovery. The remaining 60 percent is pumped into formations deep underground.

This practice of disposing of the produced water underground has had severe consequences in states like Oklahoma where, Sandoval said, it has increased seismic activity.

What contaminants might be in the produced water?

There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to the produced water. There is no data on what types of contaminants could be in the produced water and, without that data, it is unclear how much treatment would be needed or what technology could be used to treat that water. Roose said the state also does not know what additional regulations would be needed to monitor the use of produced water.

The New Mexico State University's Produced Water Consortium to create a research consortium tasked with finding answers to those questions.

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What were some of the concerns, comments during the meeting?

The biggest concern expressed by the people who gathered inside the Little Theatre on Nov. 19 at San Juan College was the possibility that the produced water would be used for drinking water or in agriculture. 

Mario Atencio, legislative district assistant for Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso, said three chapters in the Eastern Agency known as the Tri-Chapters oppose the use of produced water as drinking water. He expressed concerns that the use of produced water could pollute Navajo Nation aquifers.

"We don't know enough about fracking or fracking water," said Counselor resident Samuel Sage. "New Mexico state agencies know next to nothing about the impacts of fracking on our communities, environment, water and long-term health. Before allowing industry to dump their toxic waste, New Mexicans deserve non-biased information on the impacts and the risks. One thing is clear, however. The frack water is the responsibility of the industry to properly dispose of and our communities should not have to pay the price in the form of contaminated water and its grave consequences."

The people who spoke about manufacturing or industrial use tended to support the idea of using produced water rather than freshwater.

Larry Sonntag, a representative from New Mexico Business Coalition, said his organization was contacted within the last week by a Canadian company interested in repurposing produced water.

"They were talking about going to Texas," he said. "They would love to expand to New Mexico."

He praised the goals of minimizing the use of fresh water in oil and gas production and reducing the amount of produced water injected into the ground and protecting groundwater.

People who work in the oil and gas industry encouraged the state to craft regulations on a basin by basin basis rather than a statewide regulation that would treat the Permian Basin and the San Juan Basin the same. 

Aztec Well Servicing Vice President Jason Sandel said the regulations should do more than just look at each basin individually. He also encouraged the state to regulate each of the formations differently.

"The recycling and reuse of produced water within the industry is a responsible activity and searching for beneficial uses beyond the industry has a real potential for a greater good in our state," Sandel said.

However, environmental activists described produced water as something that would pollute the aquifers. Instead many argued that production of oil and gas should be slowed or cease as a way of addressing the large quantities of produced water.

"It's really clear to me that you don't frack your way to a safer climate and you don't frack your way to more renewable energy and you don't frack your way to cleaner water," said WildEarth Guardians Climate and Energy Campaigner Rebecca Sobel.

Throughout the public comment period, opponents referred to the produced water as "poison water," "frack water," and "toxic water."

"If industry's waste problem is becoming a storage problem for New Mexico, it seems a little bit square peg, round hole to try to force all these folks to figure out ways to consume, treat, recycle, reuse industry's toxic fracking waste," Sobel said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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