NM revises draft rules on oil and gas wastewater

Dale Doremus, Rio Grande Chapter Executive Committee

Sierra Club and allies intervened this summer to shore up inadequate safeguards on oil and gas wastewater, or “produced water,” for reuse in drilling operations. Legislation passed in 2019 clarified that the Oil Conservation Division has authority over the use and reuse of produced water within the oil and gas industry, and the New Mexico Environment Department regulates all reuse of produced water outside the oil and gas industry.

The Environment Department posted FAQs and a summary of public input that is available here. The department is planning a two-phase approach for produced-water rulemaking: Phase 1 is a near-term narrow rulemaking (likely in 2021) to prohibit untreated produced water use outside of the oil and natural gas industry, and for the industry to provide information to the Environment Department on the chemical constituents in produced water that is intended for use outside the oil field. Phase 2 is to develop rules for the “discharge, handling, transport, storage, and recycling or treatment of produced water or byproducts outside the oilfield.”

In May, the Oil Conservation Division proposed an update to its regulations on produced-water reuse in the oil field, asserting that the rulemaking was only intended to make simple changes to align existing regulations with the recent legislation. The Rio Grande Chapter intervened in the rulemaking to advocate for strengthening the rules and proposed changes to OCD’s version. The New Mexico Environmental Law Center represented Sierra Club at the Oil Conservation Commission hearing on the rule revisions on July 30-31. Norm Gaume and Camilla Feibelman testified on behalf of the Sierra Club that the regulations fall short of the mandate to protect public health, the environment, and freshwater resources, because they do little to cover the issues associated with handling produced water, including leaks and spills.

There is little known about the chemical characteristics and toxicity of treated and untreated produced water; therefore, their use has not been proven safe to human health or the environment. Reuse and recycling of produced water should be limited solely to oil and gas operations. The rules should require the reuse of produced water in lieu of fresh water for fracking. Gaume also argued that the status quo in New Mexico’s oil fields is unacceptable. Produced-water spills are far too common at more than three per day! Facilities and equipment are not regulated to prevent spills, and data on produced water and spills is sorely lacking.

Many of the changes recommended by the Sierra Club and other groups such as Wild Earth Guardians were accepted by OCC. The revised rule was finalized and approved September 3. But this is just the beginning of our push to reform OCD’s Oil and Gas statutes and rules to ensure they fulfill the Oil and Gas Act mandate to protect human health, environment and fresh water resources.

We are developing an Oil and Gas Wastewater strategy with an emphasis on statutory changes in the upcoming legislative session and longer-term goals for regulatory changes, communications, grassroots organizing and analysis of oil and gas data.

Earthworks published a report on October 7 showing that in the Permian Basin, about 4 to 7 barrels of wastewater are produced for every single barrel of oil.

New Mexico Oil & Gas Waste Report: The failure to safely manage oil and gas waste

NM revises draft rules on oil and gas wastewater