By Brittany Fallon, Rio Grande Chapter Conservation organizer
We have been working hard on the issue of “produced water,” which is fracking wastewater, in New Mexico.
Last time we wrote, the New Mexico Environment Department was hosting listening sessions around the state prior to considering treatment standards for possible uses of fracking wastewater outside of the oilfield. Thanks so much to the hundreds of you who attended the meetings or submitted written comments. I heard from many of you!
As we wait for the agency to announce next steps, we continue to advocate for industry to keep its wastewater in the oilfield.
In the listening sessions, the Environment Department discussed its plans as a two-phase process. Phase I includes “public meetings, tribal engagement, and collaboration with technical experts to fill science and technology gaps.” Phase II is to “propose draft regulations for formal rulemaking before the Water Quality Control Commission, including public notice and comment period and opportunity for tribal consultation.”
The department laid out its path as follows: 1) Develop rules that prohibit untreated produced water use(s) outside of the oil and gas industry; 2) Develop rules that require companies to analyze and disclose the chemical constituents in produced water intended for treatment and use outside the oil and natural gas industry; and 3) Over time and as the science dictates, develop rules for the “discharge, handling, transport, storage, and recycling or treatment of produced water or byproduct thereof outside the oilfield.”
In 2019, the Legislature passed a bill that removed disincentives for oil companies to reuse wastewater when fracking rather than using fresh water. This will reduce the amount of freshwater used in environment-harming extraction.
The bill also clarified that any use of fracking wastewater outside the oilfield would have to be permitted by the Environment Department. The bill requires the Water Quality Control Commission to set treatment standards for things like agriculture or livestock watering.
Finally, the legislation restored the Oil Conservation Division’s ability to fine oil and gas companies for violations. A previous court case under the Martinez administration had stripped the division’s ability to fine bad-neighbor companies.
The Sierra Club’s position is that not enough is known about fracking wastewater to determine if it is safe for outside use, even after it is treated.
Along with high levels of salt, there are many hundreds of potential other chemicals, heavy metals, and even radionuclides in produced water. Before even considering treatment standards, we need much peer-reviewed research testing how the contents of the wastewater might impact crops, soil quality, or surface and groundwater.
For now, industry should focus on reusing wastewater within oilfields to stop using freshwater. We will continue to advocate for ending fracking entirely in the face of the climate crisis.
Featured image: Photo of an unlined pool of water and oil on the ground, printed with permission from the State Land Office.