By Michael Gerstein for the Santa Fe New Mexican
Environmentalists leveled sharp criticisms at rules dealing with recycled water produced during oil and gas extraction during a nearly eight-hour public meeting Thursday.
Environmentalists also criticized regulators for offering a rule they claim is too narrow to address environmental and public health concerns and abdicates responsibility to other state personnel who also don’t have a rule that addresses their worries.
But an attorney for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, Michael Feldewert, said comments from groups like WildEarth Guardians, New Energy Economy and Youth United 4 Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA), “completely misrepresents the purpose of this rule.” Those groups shared fears that recycled water from fracking operations contain radioactive elements and could contaminate land and water, and put people at risk.
A spokesman for the industry association did not provide the rest of Feldewert’s planned comments on the rule.
Instead, Oil and Gas Association spokesman Robert McEntyre said in a statement: “Produced water has the potential to be a game-changer for New Mexico, placing our state at the forefront of innovating and studying the unique opportunities it presents.”
McEntyre said the Oil Conservation Division, an arm of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, has created “practical, transparent rules” that ensure such water is treated and used safely.
“The rules should illustrate that the oil and natural gas industry is doing a good job managing our limited water resources and minimizing fresh water use,” he said.
In a hydraulic fracturing operation, known as fracking, companies shoot highly pressurized water deep into the earth to draw out buried pockets of oil and gas. That technology has been key to unlocking some of the largest oil reserves in the world, including in the Permian Basin, which until recent months had fueled New Mexico’s post-recession economic recovery.
Environmentalists say they fear the rule under discussion — meant to clarify which entity has the authority to oversee where recycled fracking water is used — lacks provisions meant to protect human health, freshwater and land. They point to studies and reports showing that a cocktail of toxic chemicals and radioactive material can be dredged up along with the water.
Rolling Stone magazine reported an internal 1982 American Petroleum Institute report showed such water can contain “measurable quantities of radionuclides.” The author of the magazine article even commented during Thursday’s public comment period about the presence of high levels of radium-226 and radium-228 that have been found in hydraulic fracturing water and the danger this could pose for New Mexico residents.
Concerns about what’s in fracking water is a core part of environmentalists’ claims that the state doesn’t have strong enough rules.
“The regulations need to be modified in order to reflect the actual intent of the Produced Water Act,” said Douglas Meiklejohn, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center representing the regional chapter of the Sierra Club.
The Produced Water Act, a law that went into effect in 2019, clarified what companies can use recycled fracking water for and was meant to encourage them to reuse water in a desert state where it’s scarce.
Under the law, such water is supposed to be used “in a manner that protects the public health, the environment and freshwater resources.”
But environmentalists point to numerous spills of potentially toxic “produced water,” as it’s known in state law, that have happened almost on a daily basis, said Daniel Timmons, an attorney with WildEarth Guardians.
The state requires companies to take action and clean up such spills immediately, Bill Brancard, general counsel for the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, said during the meeting. But Timmons, citing state data, argued spills continue to happen frequently.
In January, one such spill rained down on a family near Carlsbad after a pipeline carrying produced water burst in the early morning hours. The pipeline was operated by WPX Energy, which shut it off after about 40 minutes of produced water showering the family’s property, according to NM Political Report.
The family has complained of headaches, nosebleeds, asthma and other respiratory problems, according to the website.
In addition, brine disposal wells from fracking operations have led to the potential for a massive sinkhole threatening Carlsbad. Fixing the sinkhole is now a $54 million environmental cleanup effort being led and paid for by the state.
In Jal, deep in oil and gas country, freshwater is in such short supply the town’s mayor, Stephen Aldridge, recently told The New Mexican “we’re fighting for our lives down here.”
The Produced Water Act was meant to address that scarcity. But preserving freshwater — which is used in large volumes for fracking — and concern about chemicals and potential radiation in produced water is a key tension for those worried about how water is used and reused by the oil and gas industry.
The Sierra Club is arguing for more stringent reporting requirements and that that the rule should be broader.
A staffer with the state Environment Department said during the broadcast public comment the department actually agrees with the Sierra Club’s request for increased reporting.
The meeting was initially disrupted for an hour by a series of technical difficulties and briefly by YUCCA members who chanted at the start of the meeting, “Shut down the meeting! Produced water is fracking waste!”