Outside the town of Hillsboro, N.M., remains of the Copper Flat Mine are visible down a graded gravel road off Highway 152. A white pickup truck moves along in the distance. And there are a couple of buildings and a small electric line. The mine operated for just a few months before closing in July 1982. But a new company hopes to reopen it on 2,190 acres of federal and private land, and put to use water rights it says date back decades.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of New Mexico released a draft report on Friday about the possibility of someday reusing or recycling wastewater from the oil and gas industry. According to the draft white paper compiled by the EPA and three state agencies, “Given that drought is no stranger to New Mexico, decisions about water are growing ever more complicated and meaningful.”
This summer, the EPA and three New Mexico agencies convened a working group to understand and clarify existing regulatory and permitting frameworks and create a road map toward finding other uses for wastewater generated by oil and gas drilling. The draft report lays out various possible reuse scenarios, explains which agencies would be involved in permitting and regulations and parses some of the legal issues. As the authors note, New Mexico became the third-largest oil producing state in the U.S. in 2018 and the industry produces enormous quantities of wastewater. According to the report:
For every barrel of oil, four or five barrels of produced water may be generated: an estimated 168 to 210 gallons of produced water for every 42 gallons of oil produced.
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.
When drilling wells, operators inject chemicals, sand and water underground to create fissures that help move oil and natural gas to the wellhead more efficiently. That practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses a lot of water. And it leaves behind a lot of water, too. In 2015, even before the Permian Basin really started booming, industry produced 900 million barrels of wastewater. That’s about 116,000 acre feet—or almost all of the water currently stored in Elephant Butte Reservoir.
Oil and gas companies reported fewer toxic spills in New Mexico last year than in 2015. According to the Center for Western Priorities’ 2016 Spill Tracker, companies reported 1,310 spills in 2016. Most of those occurred in Lea and Eddy counties, the site of most drilling activity in the state. The nonpartisan group’s Spill Tracker is based on publicly-available records from New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division, which is within the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. According to the Spill Tracker, five companies were responsible for nearly 40 percent of all spills of crude oil, natural gas and produced water.
Even as temperatures rise in the southwestern United States and across the globe, climate change doesn’t often grab the interest of many New Mexico’s state legislators. But during the Senate’s confirmation of Ken McQueen as secretary of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department the issue came up repeatedly, both in the Senate Rules Committee and later in the day on the Senate floor. Nominated in December by Gov. Susana Martinez, McQueen retired last year as San Juan vice president from WPX Energy. McQueen spent nearly four decades in the oil and gas business and worked taught Petroleum Engineering at the University of Tulsa. Related story: Over objections, New Mexico energy chief confirmed
His former employer, WPX Energy, has the rights to lease about 100,000 acres of federal, state and Navajo allottee lands in the San Juan Basin for oil and gas production and has drilled more than 100 oil wells in recent years along the Highway 550 corridor.
After his confirmation hearing turned to discussion of climate change and the Four Corners methane hotspot on Wednesday, environmental groups lambasted Mew Mexico’s top oil and gas regulator as echoing politically conservative talking points while one legislator described the conversation as “very troubling.” But despite opposition from conservationists and a small group of Democratic lawmakers, the state Senate voted 32-4 to confirm former oil and gas industry executive Kenley McQueen as secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. While McQueen won praise from some lawmakers as having an expert grasp on the sector he is now in charge of policing, environmental groups have likened his appointment to picking a fox to guard a hen house, prompting some of the harshest opposition that any of Gov. Susana Martinez’s appointees have met so far in the current legislative session. Related: Climate change part of debate over energy head’s confirmation
The secretary’s confirmation hearing on Wednesday only seemed to enflame criticism from liberal senators. “What I heard today was very troubling,” Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said later on the Senate floor.
Each announcement by President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team about his picks for cabinet positions flares public interest. Whether it’s ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to lead the State Department or former Texas Governor Rick Perry as secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, the appointments provide insight into what the businessman’s presidency might mean for America and the rest of the world. Those appointments will have significant impacts here in New Mexico, which has 23 sovereign Native American tribes, millions of acres of federal lands and an abundance of natural resources like oil, gas, coal, copper and uranium. Not only that, but in the past five years, the state’s environmental regulations and agencies—which might have been able to hold the line against some of the incoming president’s policies—have been weakened during the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez. When it comes to issues like science and environmental regulations, high-level staff picks have long-term impacts on everything from pollution trends and energy policy to the rate at which the Earth’s atmosphere is warming.
Gov. Susana Martinez unveiled a state energy plan on Monday morning at the Southeastern New Mexico Energy Summit in Carlsbad. Martinez’s office called the plan the first such comprehensive policy for New Mexico in 25 years and the plan is predicated on energy abundance. The plan is available on the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department website. “New Mexico is one of the most energy-rich and energy-diverse states in the nation, and we have an excellent opportunity to utilize this position to grow our economy and create more jobs,” Martinez said in a statement. “Improving our energy infrastructure, responsibly developing and producing energy of all types, and better preparing our workforce for the needs of our energy sector are all critical components not only of a strong economic future, but of helping lead America to energy independence.”