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New Mexico proceeds with oil and gas waste water rule-making despite activist concerns

by Adrian Hedden for the Carlsbad Current-Argus

Environmental activists attempted to disrupt a public hearing on New Mexico’s proposed changes in how it regulates produced water generated by oil and gas operations.

Produced water results from oil and gas extraction, a combination of flowback water resulting from hydraulic fracturing and formation water brought up to the surface along with crude oil and natural gas.

Traditionally, produced water is disposed of through injection wells that pump it back underground. It is also often treated by oil and gas companies and reused in subsequent fracturing operations.

The State of New Mexico recently began studying produced water as a potential resource to be used outside of the oil and gas industry and sought to alter its regulations on how produced water is managed.

But environmentalists challenged the idea of reusing produced water outside of oil and gas, calling the water a toxic byproduct that could pollute the environment.

During Thursday’s public hearing held online by the Oil Conservation Commission, several protesters were removed from the call as they chanted and read prepared statements before opening remarks could be made by Commission members.

“Shutdown the meeting. Produced water is toxic waste,” chanted a group of participants from activist group Youth United for Climate Change Action (YUCCA) who appeared to be outside a New Mexico government building.

Oil Conservation Division Director Adrienne Sandoval, who also chairs the Commission issued warnings to the group but then expelled them from the meeting when they continued to chant.

“We will have decorum,” she said. “This is a public meeting.”

A participant who identified himself as Jon Carver was also expelled for chanting out of turn, and repeatedly posted statements in the chat window of the call alleging 6 million or more people died from climate change and that the fossil fuel industry was to blame.

These deaths are second degree murders for which our State Government must be held accountable,” Carver wrote in the chat box. “Public Health demands a permanent ban on fracking in (New Mexico). These are innocent deaths and second degree murders given the State's quoted advocacy for Fracking.”

Proposed rules would clarify state authority on produced water

The hearing was intended to provide a public update and public comments on changes to the regulations in response to the House Bill 546 passed in 2019 known as the Produced Water Act, which gave the OCD the ability to develop rules to regulate produced water within the industry.

The proposed changes would clarify the Oil Conservation Division’s authority to regulate produced water, while establishing a definition for produced water.

The changes discussed at the meeting would also increase water use reporting requirements for operators engaged in hydraulic fracturing and the transport of produced water.

Any use of produced water outside of the oil and gas industry would be regulated by the New Mexico Environment Department, per the Act.

Michael Feldewert with the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association said the rulemaking was meant to conform OCD rules with the Produced Water Act not to allow the industry to release produced water freely into the environment.

Marathon Oil also voiced its support of the rules. “It certainly has nothing to do with dumping produced water on crops or in state streams or anything in the representations made by parties in this case,” he said.

More research needed

Daniel Timmons, an attorney with Wild Earth Guardians said the proposal failed to protect freshwater resources and should be reconsidered, while produced water should be better studied for its chemical content before regulations are developed.

He said produced water contains toxic chemicals, high salt content and radioactive materials and could be dangerous to human and environmental health.  

“There are huge gaps in the scientific understanding of the toxicity and the risks of using reusing produced water,” he said. “The proposal does nothing to address these concerns.”

Michelle Hunter, chief of the Ground Water Quality Bureau at the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) said the agency supported the OCD rulemaking in that it added requirement for water use reporting and clarified the jurisdictions of the Division and NMED related to produced water.

She said NMED would soon develop its own rules regulating produced water’s impact on the environment.

“The NMED is here to support the OCD in drawing these lines,” Hunter said.

Rebecca Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner with WildEarth Guardians said she worried the rulemakings at both agencies were part of a larger effort by New Mexico’s administration to making it easier for oil and gas companies to release produced water into the environment.

The Administration's rush to dump toxic oil and gas waste across New Mexico gives folks across the region legitimate cause for concern,” she said. “If the fracking industry succeeds in duping decision-makers to de-regulate their toxic waste even more, our water, lands, and climate face devastation beyond repair."

New Mexico State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard in comments submitted ahead of the hearing said more studies as to the content of produced water was needed and called on any future regulations to include stronger bonding requirements for any activities by oil and gas companies to use, transport or managed produced water on State Trust lands.

“Significant additional scientific study of the safety of treatment of produced water is necessary before additional rulemaking occurs,” read Garcia Richard’s comments.


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