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The Pros and Cons of ‘Produced Water’

By Leah Cantor for the Santa Fe Reporter

Members of Youth United for Climate Change Action (YUCCA) stand outside the Wendell Chino Building in Santa Fe Thursday morning, holding large banners bearing slogans against the use of so-called "produced water," a byproduct of the oil and gas industry's most debated extraction techniques.

Meanwhile, inside, a lone administrator sits behind her computer screen in a room full of empty chairs. She waits as dozens of icons pop up in the Zoom chat box identifying more than 100 virtual participants to the public hearing held by the Oil Conservation Commission.

The topic: proposed changes to rules governing "produced water" offered by the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to better reflect the Produced Water Act, passed by the Legislature in 2019.

In addition to some minor language tweaks, the proposal would require entities involved in oil and gas extraction to track and report how much and what types of water they use.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses millions of gallons of freshwater to extract oil and gas from the earth, in turn generating over a billion of barrels of wastewater contaminated with toxic and radioactive chemicals and minerals each year. This "produced water" is mostly disposed of deep underground and does not reenter the water cycle.

"Collecting this data is a crucial step to inform future rule proposals on produced water within the oil and gas industry," a department news release reads.

The proposed rules also clarify that the Oil Conservation Division only has jurisdiction over the reuse of produced water within the oil and gas industry; use of produced water for road construction or other activities is subject to regulation by the water quality control commission and requires permits from the Environment Department.

The rapid increase in oil production and, in turn, water use in recent years raises the concern that the oil and gas industry could quickly deplete water levels in arid oil producing regions such as the Permian Basin in southern New Mexico.

In Lea County,  the oil producing town of Jal is embroiled in a legal dispute with two companies that recently bought rights and applied for permits to pump millions of gallons of water from an underground basin adjacent to the basin the town depends on for its own municipal water use, the Santa Fe New Mexican  recently reported.

Though Jal's economy depends on the oil and gas sector, local leaders worry that the water table could be so badly depleted by the industry that the town could run out of water. The state Engineer's Office was scheduled to conduct a hearing on the matter at the end of this month.

The Produced Water Act, in part, was designed to encourage companies to reuse produced water in the fracking process instead of using fresh water.

It's a prospect in which oil companies have a lot at stake as well, because disposing of produced water is costly. Exxon Mobile recently entered into an agreement with New Mexico State University to develop technologies for produced water management.

The proposed rule changes discussed at Thursday's meeting attempt to make reuse of produced water within the oil and gas industry easier by cutting down on regulations and permitting requirements.

However, environmental groups including WildEarth Guardians and New Energy Economy oppose the proposed rule changes on the grounds that lack of regulation could expose the environment and surrounding communities to spills, leaks and other hazards.

In their pre-hearing filings, both groups also argue that the changes could open the door for the use of produced water outside of the oil and gas sector.

There is scant scientific research on the environmental and health impacts of produced water, but the existing evidence indicates that impacts are most likely negative. In Pennsylvania, for instance, a study of roads treated with produced water to control dust found radioactive contaminants and organic micro-pollutants toxic to aquatic organisms in surrounding soil and water.

The first few hours of the public hearing Thursday featured concerns about the unknown impacts. A handful of other people, mostly representatives for oil companies and state agencies, speak in favor of the rule changes.

Artemisio Romero y Carver, one of the youth activists who began the morning outside, connects the challenges of produced water to the fight for environmental justice—a social movement that aims to expose how negative environmental impacts disproportionately impact low income communities and communities of color.

"New Mexico is a poor state, we are also a majority minority state. We are a state that both by class and race exists at the bottom of this country's capitalist and white supremacist hierarchies. To make that simple, we are expendable," Romero y Carver begins.

"Because of this, the state has fulfilled two consistent roles. We have served as a place for large corporations to take resources at a cheap price without very much regulation, and second we have served as a place to test unsafe technologies on a primarily brown and Indigenous population," Romero y Carver says, citing nuclear weapons testing as one example among others.

He continues, "Members of the Oil Conservation Commission, I came here to tell you with all undue respect, we refuse to be your guinea pigs."

The public hearing is scheduled to pick up again Friday morning.


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