New Mexico Environment Department pushes for compliance with oil and gas radiation rules

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

Radioactive material in the oil and gas fields of New Mexico was being analyzed by environmental regulators who announced an initiative to ensure operators were complying with state law intended to protect the environment and the public.

The New Mexico Environment Department last week began efforts to ensure oil and gas companies were compliant with licensing requirements related to naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) that could be increased during operations.

Under state regulations adopted in 2001 by the Environmental Improvement Board, operators must obtain additional licensing from NMED if extraction activities alter, concentrate or expose people to NORM above state limits.

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NMED reported such activities could include extraction, transport, storage or disposal of waste materials.

The Department was specifically addressing NORM found in crude oil, natural gas, soil and produced water.

It also analyzed NORM found in equipment for gas processing, pipelines and storage tanks.

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That state planned to contact 20 oil and gas companies representing about 39,000 wells in New Mexico, calling on the operators to respond in 60 days to explain their compliance with NORM regulations.

If companies fail to comply with such rules, they could be fined up to $15,000 per day.

“Over the next few months, NMED will determine the extent of compliance or non-compliance with the rules by the oil and natural gas industry and take appropriate enforcement action if warranted,” read a statement from NMED.

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Department spokesperson Maddy Hayden said NMED intended to ensure companies comply with state law two decades after NORM regulations were established.

“We’re assuring that the oil and gas industry is in compliance with state law. Establishing rules to protect public health and the environment is key - and that happened two decades ago,” Hayden said. “Assuring compliance with these regulations is critical to ensure the public and environment is protected - and that’s now happening.”

She said the State lacks adequate data on NORM levels in the Permian Basin oil and gas fields in southeast New Mexico and the San Juan Basin in the northwest, and the companies selected for the inquiry were meant provide a broad swath of sectors and locations within the oil and gas industry.

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“While NORM within the oil and gas industry has been a topic of discussion for decades, we do not have a clear understanding of the presence and levels of NORM in the Permian and San Juan basins, especially in light of the shale oil boom,” Hayden said. “That’s part of why we initiated this compliance effort.”

The project was part of NMED’s broader effort to better understand oil and gas waste, she said, and the industry’s impact on the environment.

Amid the recent boom in oil and gas development in New Mexico, Hayden said better knowledge and data of the impact of such activities was essential to protect the public.

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She said the Department’s struggled in recent years for such work as its radiation program was cut by $400,000 in 2017 and had yet to be restored to adequate funding.

“Further, we are investing heavily in understanding the scientific and regulatory landscape around oil and gas wastes, including produced water,” Hayden said. “Compliance with these regulations is key to understanding more about radiological impacts from oil and gas and the impacts to public health and the environment.”

A report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said radioactivity can be found in rocks in and around oil and gas shale deposits and drilling from the underground deposits could bring NORM to the surface, potentially exposing workers and nearby residents.

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Radioactivity can also be found in wastes such as drill cuttings, produced water, pipe scale and other sludges and sediments.

Long-term exposure to high levels of radiation can increase the risk of cancer, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while short-term exposure can cause acute radiation syndrome (ARS) with symptoms such as skin burns, nausea or vomiting lasting for minutes to several days.

“Wastes generated from oil and gas drilling must be properly managed to keep the radionuclides in these wastes from spreading to surrounding areas,” the EPA report read.

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An October 2020 report authored by scientists at Harvard University published in the Journal Nature showed newer drilling techniques like hydraulic fracturing or directional wells could lead to increase levels of released radioactive materials.

Unconventional wells that use fracking and directional drilling target deeper, harder-to-reach shale deposits that could have higher levels of NORM, the report read.   

The national average of particle radiation was about 0.35 millibecquerels per cubic meter (mBq/m3), the study showed, while the monitors near oil and gas sites averaged up to 0.47 mBq/m3. 

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Unconventional and conventional oil and gas activities were reported to increase particle radiation levels by 0.13 mBq/m3 and 0.029 mBq/m3, respectively.

Data was taken from air monitors in oil-and-gas-producing areas such as the Permian and San Juan basins in New Mexico, along with the the Marcellus-Utica region near Pennsylvania and New York, and the Bakken-Niobara region in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.

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