Water companies want NM to reuse oil and gas byproduct, despite safety and environmental concerns

NM’s extractive industries create as much toxic water per day as the amount of municipal water that people in the state use

By: - October 24, 2022 5:00 am

Environmental advocates hold signs and chant for clean water access at a news conference held to protest the repurposing of produced water in New Mexico on Oct. 20, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

A warming globe and dwindling water supply are forcing conversations on alternative water sources, so some water engineers and scientists are encouraging New Mexico to start treating and using the toxic water that comes from oil and gas extraction.

But environmental advocates say the chemically infused water is unsafe and untreatable.

The New Mexico Desalination Association invited water experts to talk about how the state can move  away from using traditional water sources at the New Water for New Mexico conference at the Sandia Resort and Casino on Thursday.

They talked about alternative or unconventional sources of water New Mexico could turn to as its regular supply decreases, including recycling what’s called “produced water,” a byproduct of extraction. But since this toxic water is prohibited for reuse for anything other than the oil and gas industry in New Mexico, speakers suggested revising New Mexico’s water laws to make this happen.

What is produced water?

Produced water comes out of the ground along with oil and gas when it’s extracted. The water, often high in saline, can contain oil residues, dissolved solids and toxic chemicals.

Scientists are exploring whether produced water is a viable option in replacing or supplementing freshwater amid declining supply. 

Hydraulic fracking is a common method to extract oil and gas, a process that utilizes high-pressure fluid injections to break rock formations to get fossil fuels — and, incidentally, produced water.

Rebecca Sobel is the director of WildEarth Guardians and organized a news conference just a few miles away from the New Water conference to speak against reusing produced water. She said it takes a lot of water to frack in the first place — about 9 million gallons for each drilled well in New Mexico, though the number varies, according to the NMED.

“Our state’s precious freshwater is pumped 10,000 feet into the ground, coming back as a chemical cocktail known as — quote — produced water,” Sobel said.

Environmental advocates met on the Alameda Bridge near the Rio Grande on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022 to rally against produced water usage. (Photo by Anni Hanna, courtesy of John Acosta)

As New Mexico continues to yield record amounts of oil and gas and is among one of the top oil and gas suppliers in the country, a huge amount of produced water comes with that, too. 

Last year, the oil and gas industry in New Mexico generated about 60 billion gallons of produced water, which equates to over 160 million gallons per day — the same amount of total daily municipal water consumption in the state.

What’s N.M. doing with all of its produced water right now?

Most oil and gas water byproduct is used again in hydraulic fracking or reinjected into the ground.

John Grizz Deal is the CEO of IX Power Clean Water, a company that treats contaminated water. He brought up that a lot more produced water is generated in the extraction of oil and gas than fossil fuels. Four to seven times more produced water comes out of the ground than oil and gas, according to the New Mexico Environment Department.

IX Secretary Deborah Deal-Blackwell said the chemicals benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene — commonly referred to as BTEX — can be present in the water, and those are deadly to consume.

That’s why environmental advocates met on the banks of the Rio Grande to protest any use of produced water. Organizer Sobel said the water is too toxic to treat.

“As this new water conference continues down the street, we’re up the river trying to level the playing field, calling for the necessary protections for New Mexico, for our public health and for freshwater,” Sobel said. “New Mexicans deserve better.”

A state effort to study options

The state is still trying to learn more information about produced water, and Environment Department spokesperson Matthew Maez said rules and regulations on potential expanded use won’t come out until there’s more science-based knowledge about it.

The New Mexico Produced Water Research Consortium is a partnership between NMED and New Mexico State University that started up about three years ago and is studying produced water.

Once the state knows more, Maez said, NMED will draft rules and regulations around it. He said until that happens, the department won’t approve any permits to use it outside of the oil and gas sector.

But many speakers at the conference pointed to other states reusing produced water as a sign that it’s OK, like irrigation use in California. Other states also use it for irrigation, like Wyoming and Montana, but many states are still trying to research produced water amid a lack of in-depth information at the federal level.

The public and officials listen to a speaker at the New Water for New Mexico conference held at the Sandia Resort and Casino on Oct. 20, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Deal said New Mexico should follow California’s lead in reusing produced water with the new technologies — still being studied for efficacy — that make it possible to get contaminants out. “It’s a real nasty stew, but the good news is we know how to treat it,” he said.

Deal-Blackwell said people don’t know enough about the stigmatized subject of recycling water sources.“It’s our fault,” she said. “We’re not educating them.” Produced water could be used for crops, livestock and industrial purposes, she said.

“We can clean and use that produced water without fear of it harming anyone,” Deal-Blackwell said.

Not everyone agrees, though. For instance, there’s controversy on the produced water irrigation in Kern County, California. Although the California water quality board approved it, people have pointed to potential threats to wildlife and the environment, and an overall lack of information on produced water. 

Elaine Cimino, director of Common Ground Rising, said Californians are even boycotting those agricultural products out of fear of health risks.

Eleanor Bravo, board chair member of New Energy Economy, also brought up moral questions about capitalizing on access to water. Many of the water companies that support the usage of produced water are the same ones that would make money by treating it.

Eleanor Bravo speaks to people about the toxicity of produced water. Pitcured on the Alameda Bridge on Oct. 20, 2022. (Photo courtesy of John Acosta)

“Water is a human right, a basic human right that should never be commodified,” Bravo said.

Ultimately, trying to make produced water an alternative water source is just a ploy to keep boosting the oil and gas industry, Sobel said. The industry is thriving in New Mexico, generating billions of dollars for the state but, she pointed out, also leaving tons of environmental destruction in its wake.

“It’s no secret that the industry’s strategy is to relabel their waste,” she said, “so that they can more cheaply dump it into rivers, onto crops and into drinking water supplies.”

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.