For nine years, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has wrangled through an update to oil and gas permitting procedures for the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico. The update was sparked by decades old changes in drilling technology already used in an area that gained notoriety for having one of the largest methane hot spots on the planet — because of leaking oil and gas wells. In February 2020, BLM and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs together released a set of four update possibilities. All four have been roundly panned by government agencies, environmental groups, tribal governments, Native American organizations and the public at large. Even so, the two agencies will announce which option they’ve chosen as their final plan next month.
Stepping to the microphone at a press conference wrapping up this year’s legislative session, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, hammered the podium to the drum beat for Queen’s “We Will Rock You” before declaring it the “best, most productive” legislative session in state history. He proclaimed major achievements in education funding, criminal justice reform, a path for carbon-free electricity — and a bill that would save 100,000 acre feet of water each year from use in oil fields. “The produced water bill, I think, is going to go down as one of the greatest environmental accomplishments to come out of the state legislature of New Mexico,” Egolf said. “Just the quantity of fresh, potable water that’s going to be saved for agricultural and municipal use is breathtaking.”
The bill Egolf held up in victory paves the way for recycling wastewater from oil and gas production for reuse by the industry, reducing the need for freshwater in the production process.
It had the support of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association but was controversial among environmental groups because it sets the stage for such water to see other, non-industrial uses in the future. In the final days of the session it was amended to allow the Oil Conservation Division to issue fines and penalties for permit violations, a measure championed by environmentalists.
On a late March weekend, State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard headed out to the Permian Basin, to visit oil wells on state trust lands. These are wells that churn out profits for corporations, build up the state’s general fund from taxes and royalties and send money to schools and hospitals. Looking through a special camera that detects emissions of volatile organic compounds, Garcia Richard also saw that the wells are sending methane and other pollutants into the air. “There are seemingly innocuous pieces of equipment, tanks, pipes, and then you look at it with the FLIR camera and you can see these clouds of emissions,” the commissioner said. “We went to some older operations, some newer operations, some [wells operated] by some smaller companies, some by larger companies.”
All week, we look for stories that help New Mexicans better understand what’s happening with water, climate, energy, landscapes and communities around the region. Thursday morning, that news goes out via email. To subscribe to that weekly email, click here. Here’s some of what subscribers read this week:
Like many news outlets, we wrote last week about some of the impacts of the federal shutdown on New Mexico. And, as it turns out, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has indeed been processing Applications for Permits to Drill (APDs) in New Mexico.
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.
The New Mexico Oil Conservation Commission delayed a decision to approve an energy company’s request to increase well density in two northern New Mexico counties. At its meeting on Thursday, the commission also rejected a community group’s request to intervene in the hearing. Hilcorp Energy Company’s Justin Furnace emailed a statement on Thursday evening. “The Commission made it clear today that the application has merit, but at the Commission’s request, Hilcorp will be re-notifying affected operators in the San Juan Basin to ensure that they are aware of the proposed change,” Furnace wrote. Hilcorp asked the state to amend the “pool rule,” or well density requirements, in the Blanco-Mesaverde Gas Pool in San Juan and Rio Arriba counties. Under the current rules, companies can drill four wells within the designated 320-acre spacing units, and only two can be drilled within each 160-acre section.
At its meeting on Thursday, September 13, the New Mexico Oil Conservation Committee will hear from an energy company that wants to double the density of gas wells in northwestern New Mexico. Hilcorp Energy Company is asking the state to amend well density requirements in what’s called the Blanco-Mesaverde Gas Pool in San Juan and Rio Arriba counties. Under the current rules, companies can drill four wells within the designated 320-acre spacing units, and only two can be drilled within each 160-acre section. Companies can also ask the state to increase the density of wells on a case-by-case basis, something Hilcorp notes in its application New Mexico has allowed it to do in 62 instances this year. Rather than continuing to file individual applications, each with its own public notice and hearing, the company is now asking New Mexico to change the spacing rules for the entire Blanco-Mesaverde pool.
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.
In September, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will hold a sale on almost 200 drilling leases for 89,000 acres in Chaves, Eddy and Lea counties. About a dozen of those leases are within a mile of the boundary of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The National Parks Conservation Association hopes the BLM will defer the parcels nearest to the park, in critical cave and karst areas and in other places with environmental concerns or wilderness characteristics, said Ernie Atencio, the nonprofit’s New Mexico Program Manager. “They heard our request to that effect, and they might even agree and prepare the paperwork for it, but that’s another decision that has to come down from D.C. and no longer in the hands of local managers,” he said. Since 1923, when President Calvin Coolidge signed the executive order creating what was then called Carlsbad Cave National Monument, the region has been transformed, largely due to oil drilling in the Permian Basin.