ByCody Nelson, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Emily Holden, for Floodlight |
Antoinette Sedillo Lopez quickly learned the harsh reality of New Mexico politics after she was appointed to fill an empty seat in the state senate two years ago. One of the first bills she pushed sought a four-year pause on new fracking permits on state lands, taking that time to study the environmental, health and safety impacts of the controversial oil and gas drilling technique. Sedillo Lopez believed it was a sensible piece of legislation, one that was tempered and looked out for New Mexicans. But almost right away, the bill died,never getting out of committee. The same thing happened to a similar measure she pushed earlier this year, with support from dozens of environmental and Indigenous organizations.
While fresh water supplies in the state are slowly dwindling, oil and gas activity generates millions of gallons of produced water each year. The state is currently deciding how best to regulate the use of treated produced water, while researchers, oil and gas producers and other companies are trying to find new uses for the wastewater. Produced water is a byproduct of the oil and gas extraction activities currently going on in two energy-generating sections of the state, the Permian Basin in the southeastern portion of the state, and the San Juan basin in the Four Corners area. The wastewater comes into contact with hydrocarbons and drilling constituents, and is generally considered contaminated. As the state gears up to hold a series of public meetings on recycling produced water throughout October, there are some serious question marks over the feasibility of using treated produced water in applications outside the oil and gas industry.
“Take a left here,” Daniel Tso says, gesturing with a hand towards an unmarked dirt road. There’s a small, hand-painted sign beside a tree that reads “Living Spring Church,” the only marker I’ve seen so far that differentiates this dirt road from the web of other unmarked roads we took to get here. We’re headed to a group of fracking wells in what’s now called the “Greater Chaco landscape,” 25 million square miles of land outside of Counselor, New Mexico. Tso, who is a delegate on the Navajo Nation Council representing Counselor and the surrounding area, sits in the passenger seat of the car while my husband drives. I’m in the backseat, taking notes as he points out changes to the landscape caused by oil and gas development.
Daniel Tso, right, leads the “Fracking Reality Tours” in the Greater Chaco region.
When you’re driving at night through Counselor, N.M., on U.S. 550 the horizon takes on a dusky illumination, almost like daylight, Samuel Sage said during a Monday news conference in Santa Fe. Bright light flares from natural gas being burned off as part of oil and gas production, which has become increasingly common in that area of Northwestern New Mexico, particularly since 2013, said Sage, a member of the Navajo Nation’s Counselor Chapter House. Sage was among several environmental advocates who gathered at the state Capitol in support of a bill that, if passed, would create a four-year moratorium on any new state permits for hydraulic fracturing — a type of deep horizontal drilling that injects high-pressured fluid below ground. The bill also outlines extensive reporting requirements for several state agencies related to the impacts of fracking. “All we want is clean air and clean water,” Sage said.
A special audit of the city of Jal found government officials in the southeastern New Mexico oil patch town gave “improper billings and adjustments” of more than $660,000 between 2008 and 2016. Those billings may violate New Mexico’s anti-donation clause, State Auditor Tim Keller concluded, which bars local and state governments from making donations to private individuals. The audit comes after NM Political Report and the Jal Record reported last September that city officials gave a local rancher a $1.2 million discount on commercial water use between August 2012 and April of 2014. At the same time, the city raised water rates on other customers. Jal officials also continued selling industrial water to the the Beckham Ranch, Inc., for six months after a ban on industrial water sales went into effect.
On a windy Monday morning in May, residents packed the Counselor Chapter House. Some sat in plastic folding chairs, while others leaned against the wall, all paying attention to the speakers. Coming to the front of the chapter house, Marie Herbert-Chavez introduced herself in the Navajo language. “I’m going to talk real fast OK,” she said as she took the microphone to talk about fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, in her community near Chaco Canyon. This piece originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission. Four members of the Navajo Nation Council, Speaker LoRenzo Bates, Councilor Amber Kanazbah Crotty, Councilor Davis Filfred and Councilor Leonard Tsosie who represents Counselor as well as nearby chapters, had come to hear testimony from area residents.
Saturday night, freshman state Rep. Derrick Lente watched one of his first initiatives turn into a showdown on the House floor. Earlier in the session, Lente’s memorial to protect cultural and historical sites near Chaco Canyon received bipartisan support and passed through the House State Government, Indian and Veterans’ Affairs Committee unanimously. Something changed, though. By the time it reached the House floor, the Democrat’s memorial had triggered uncertainty and skepticism from Republicans. That’s because there was an elephant lurking in the room, said Lente, who is from the Pueblo of Sandia.
In its final report on how hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is affecting water supplies, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency said the common oil and gas drilling technology can, in fact, contaminate drinking water supplies. The report was released earlier this week. New Mexico has tens of thousands of oil and gas wells in the northwestern and southeastern parts of the state. And while the practice has received more public attention in recent years, companies have used the technology here for decades. During the process, operators inject wells with chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, petroleum distillates, ethanol, sodium chloride and trimethylbenzene.
This story was reported in partnership with the Jal Record, a weekly newspaper based in southeastern New Mexico. JAL—Like many areas in New Mexico, water is in short supply in this southeastern oil patch town of 2,500 people. In the past few years, city officials have tried to address the matter by limiting water use, including barring businesses from buying city water for industrial use in the summer of 2013. But between 2012 and 2014, the city gave one ranch an unusual perk—a more than $1 million discount on its water bills. On top of this, Jal continued to sell industrial water to Beckham Ranch, Inc. for six months after the ban went into effect.
Eleanor Bravo is a resident of Corrales and the Southwest Organizer for Food & Water Watch. My New Mexico community just stood up to the fossil fuel industry – and won. As an organizer, I’ve been fighting oil and gas drilling in New Mexico for years, because public health, clean air and water and safe communities – everywhere – really matter to me. Late last year, the fight got deeply personal. A nearly bankrupt company, SandRidge Energy from Oklahoma, wanted to drill a new oil well just a few miles from my own home in New Mexico. There was a lot at stake: I live in a stunningly beautiful high desert region, where migratory birds dot jewel-like skies.