September 4, 2018

Transparency concerns about oilfield water reuse plans met with silence

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Laura Paskus

Oil wells in southeastern New Mexico

As state agencies move forward with plans to study reusing wastewater from oil and gas drilling, some environmental and community groups want the administration to slow down. They’re concerned about the working group’s quick schedule and lack of transparency thus far on an issue they say demands careful study.

This summer, New Mexico signed an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and formed a working group to figure out how wastewater might be reused within the oilfield itself—and someday, beyond it. As we reported last month, the state initiated the process with the EPA.

Following the publication of that story, representatives from more than 15 environmental and community groups signed onto a letter to the EPA which said the agreement between the federal agency and the state violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) and requesting the federal agency withdraw.

That law sets the rules for establishing advisory committees. Under FACA, for example, advisory committee meetings must be open to the public, subject to public notice and records of the meetings must be available to the public.

NM Political Report reached out to public information officers employed by each of the three state agencies, including Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources, the Environment Department and the Office of the State Engineer. We received no responses from the state agencies.

A spokesperson from the EPA confirmed the agency received the letter and is reviewing it. Although it appeared as though the agency might grant a request to interview EPA employees who attended or were familiar with the working group meetings, as NM Political Report’s deadline neared, officials stopped communicating.

“The process as it’s moving forward, seems to have no transparency, and from our perspective, we want to see the brakes applied,” said Jeremy Nichols climate and energy program director with WildEarth Guardians, which initiated the letter to EPA. “Maybe this [memorandum of understanding], maybe this working group, could produce some good information, but we’re very, very concerned about the lack of transparency and the fact that there is no oversight in terms of who was selected to be on this working group.”

Need for ‘deeper conversations’

Oil and gas companies produced 900 million barrels of wastewater in the Permian Basin in 2015, even before the current oil boom. That’s about 116,000 acre feet—more than all of the water currently stored in Elephant Butte Reservoir, which is currently fluctuating between four and five percent capacity. Today, the New Mexico side of the Permian has more than 30,000 wells. Fracking just one requires about 30 million gallons of water. Afterwards, most of that water is re-injected into the ground.

Last week, Bloomberg reported that drillers in Texas and New Mexico within the Permian will “pull up enough water this year alone to cover all of Rhode Island nearly a foot deep.” It also estimated that spending on water management in the Permian Basin will rise to more than $22 billion within five years.

Water challenges in the state will only become more pressing in the coming years.

Severe drought conditions have gripped the state for almost a year. Rivers are running at historically low levels, and the Rio Grande starting drying in April south of Albuquerque. Reservoirs are dropping, too, including El Vado Lake on the Chama River and Elephant Butte Reservoir south of Truth or Consequences.

Even if El Niño conditions bring better snowpack to the mountains this winter, continued warming in the Rio Grande Basin will affect river flows in the coming decades. In a 2016 study, scientists noted that continued declines in flows in the Rio Grande due to warming could sink the river system into “permanent drought.” That’s in part because the river’s waters are all allocated and the system isn’t flexible enough to address shrinking supplies or new demands. Projections also show trouble for the Colorado River, upon which New Mexico also relies. There, scientists predict a 20 percent to 30 percent decrease in flows by 2050, and a 35 percent to 55 percent decrease by 2100.

Groundwater resources are dropping throughout the state as well. Domestic wells are drying in various communities, and aquifer levels are dropping from Gallup to Hobbs. If the Ogallala in eastern New Mexico continues its current rate of decline, for example, it’s expected to dry near Clovis within 20 years.

New Mexico is also mired in legal troubles on the Rio Grande.

If New Mexico loses its U.S. Supreme Court battle with Texas and the U.S. government over decades’ worth of compact violations on the Rio Grande, the state could end up owing not only damages but additional water to Texas—at precisely a time it’s simply not available.

But Nichols said the state has to consider the health and environment risks of reusing toxic water. Some of the chemicals used during fracking can include hydrochloric acid, petroleum distillates, ethanol, sodium chloride and trimethylbenzene.

Under the memorandum of understanding, or MOU, the four agencies agreed to develop a “white paper” within six months that will do four things: synthesize regulatory and permitting issues related to produced water, identify policy or data gaps, identify possible uses of recycled or reused produced water and “identify any process or other improvement opportunities with respect to such uses.”

“This MOU is the first big step the agency is taking to, in effect, condone the reuse of oil and gas industry wastewater, and they very clearly see this MOU as part of the process to find ways to put oil and gas wastewater back into the hydrological cycle,” Nichols said. “For us, it is sinking in just how significant this is.”

Nichols and allies of WildEarth Guardians think the group is moving forward too quickly.

“In an ideal situation, we would have a deeper conversation, and ask, ‘Why in the hell are we allowing the oil and gas industry to use freshwater for fracking? Why is this happening? Why is it they require [so much freshwater] and produce so much waste, and is that okay?’” Nichols said. “Is this the way we want to make fuels for our society? This federal administration, and this state administration, bristle at any notion that fracking would be unacceptable, but for the rest of sensible Americans, we do need to have that conversation.”

Rather than accommodating industry’s wastewater, he said, the regulatory agencies should ensure companies prevent pollution in the first place.

“Industry realizes it’s in a bind, and if they can’t find other ways to deal with its waste, that’s a limiting factor,” Nichols said. “This move to study the problem is really a move [for industry] to dispose of its waste more easily and cheaply—we’re concerned that’s what’s driving this.”

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