Penny Aucoin and her husband Carl George reached a settlement with the oil company WPX Energy over a pipe burst in early 2020 that drenched the family’s yard, pets and livestock with produced water.
In January 2020, Aucoin and George were awoken early one morning by the sound of a loud pop and gushing water. When the pair went outside to investigate, they discovered that a pipeline across the street that transports produced water from an oil pad to a saltwater disposal well had burst, spewing the toxic fluid into the sky and across the street where the family’s home is located.
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Aucoin, who lives just outside of Carlsband, previously told NM Political Report the wastewater poured from the pipe for an hour before the operator was able to shut it off. The fluid drenched her pets and livestock and saturated the soil of the yard. In the aftermath, Aucoin said she was forced to euthanize 18 chickens and one dog, and give up her remaining goat. She said a county official told her she couldn’t eat her chicken eggs, couldn’t eat their meat, and said she probably shouldn’t eat anything grown on her property, either.
The Oil Conservation Commission agreed Thursday to set a hearing date for a proposed rule that would make spilling produced water illegal. The decision was in response to a petition filed by WildEarth Guardians in September calling on the OCC to adopt rules to make spilling produced water illegal.
Under the current regulatory framework, oil and gas operators face little to no consequences for spilling the toxic fracking fluid in the state, as long as they report the spill to the Oil Conservation Division. Produced water spills are very common in New Mexico, particularly in the southeastern region of the state in the Permian Basin. In the vast majority of cases, no penalties are assessed against the operator. “Oil and Gas wastewater, aka produced water, is toxic.
A produced water pipe located across the street from her Carlsbad-area home burst in mid-January, drenching her house and yard with the toxic water for an hour before it was shut off. In the aftermath, Aucoin was forced to euthanize 18 chickens and one dog, and give up her remaining goat. A county official told her she couldn’t eat her chicken eggs, couldn’t eat their meat, and said she probably shouldn’t eat anything grown on her property, either.
The operator responsible for the spill, WPX, attributed the incident to equipment failure. The company removed 25 cubic yards of topsoil from the property, and paid for a third-party contractor to treat the remaining soil.
Aucoin’s life has changed dramatically since the incident. What’s left of her yard is basically useless.
Conservation and environmental groups are unhappy with the state’s first step towards regulating the use of treated produced water, a toxic waste byproduct of oil and gas activity, outside the oilfield.
The state Oil Conservation Division (OCD), which sits within the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), released a proposed rule amendment in late June to align its produced water regulations with new mandates established in the state Produced Water Act, which was signed into law in 2019. The law established jurisdictional and legal clarity over produced water use in New Mexico and aimed to encourage oil and gas producers to reuse produced water when possible rather than rely on fresh water sources for oil and gas extraction.
As unconventional drilling exploded over the past few years in New Mexico, so has the amount of wastewater being produced. Every barrel of oil generates four to seven barrels of wastewater, of which oil and gas operators must pay to dispose. In 2018 alone, over a billion barrels of wastewater was produced in New Mexico.
Oil and gas operators are having a hard time disposing of that waste, and are increasingly looking for uses for the water outside the oil field. That’s led to a push among some oil-producing states to begin formulating new rules that would allow for produced water to be treated and put to use in other sectors, such as road construction and management, and even irrigation.
John Norris is worried about where he’s going to get water in the future. Norris is a rancher in southeast New Mexico, where he runs calf-cow and yearling operations.
“Our water comes from the Ogallala [aquifer]. We’re basically mining this water, whenever it’s gone our water source is going to be gone,” Norris said, adding that in drought years his fields dry up and the grass doesn’t grow.
“Water is the lifeblood of what we do. It’s very important to me to look for a new water source for the future to be sustainable,” he said. “Sometimes we need just a little bit of water to make it through.”
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There’s a chance Norris could someday use recycled produced water to help irrigate his ranchland.
Produced water is an abundant wastewater byproduct of oil and gas extraction activities, including fracking.
A recent incident involving the alleged dumping of produced water on state lands has highlighted the difficulties state regulators face in holding oil producers accountable to illegal dumping.
“If we don’t have proof of it happening, it’s very hard to move forward with a violation,” Adrienne Sandoval, director of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s Oil Conservation Division, told NM Political Report.
A rancher alerted the OCD in early March of an incident in which the rancher believed produced water was being dumped on state trust lands and a road in Lea County.
“Luckily it was caught by someone locally,” Sandoval said, adding that the individual “took recordings of it while it was occurring.”
A month later, the OCD issued administrative civil penalties to two companies involved in the incident: the oil producer Advanced Energy Partners Hat Mesa, LLC and a New Mexico-based trucking company named Windmill Trucking. AEP Hat Mesa has a contract with Windmill Trucking for hauling fresh water and produced water to and from oil rigs.
“The trucking company is required to have authorization from us and permits in order to haul this water. It is the operator’s responsibility to ensure the people they are contracting with have the appropriate credentials. That’s why they’re both receiving violations,” Sandoval said.
The OCD fined AEP $7,600 and fined Windmill Trucking $8,700 — the first fines OCD has issued since it regained its ability to collect fines earlier this year.
RELATED: Oil Conservation Division can enforce oil regulations for first time in a decade
“Those are just initial numbers,” Sandoval said. “After we issue the initial notice of violation, they have the option of either having a settlement conference or going to a hearing.
CARLSBAD — In the Permian Basin, now the most prolific oil field in the world, hundreds of miles of plastic pipelines snake along dirt roads, drilling pads and the edges of farm fields. But they are not carrying oil. Instead, they’re transporting an equally precious commodity in this arid region straddling the New Mexico-Texas border: water.
“Pipelines are going in everywhere,” said Jim Davis as he drove a camouflage-hued, four-wheeled ATV across his land toward the water station he owns. Selling the water beneath his property to oil and gas companies has given Davis and his wife, who has cancer, a financial security that eluded them for most of their lives. Every day, a steady stream of water trucks flows in and out of his station south of Carlsbad, filling up on his high-quality freshwater — an essential ingredient for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short.
Davis, whose property has been in his family since 1953, says he’s never seen so much water moving around the basin.
Penny Aucoin and her husband Carl George were awoken in the early hours of Tuesday morning by the sound of a loud pop and gushing water. “We went out and it was dark at 2:30 in the morning. But when we walked outside we were getting rained on and it smelled like gas — it smelled strongly of gas,” Aucoin said as she recounted the events of the night to NM Political Report. “I said, ‘Honey, where’s it coming from?’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know!’ So he was using his flashlight on his phone trying to figure out where it was coming from.”
The “rain,” it turned out, was produced water, a fluid byproduct of oil and gas extraction activities, spewing from a broken pipe across the street. The water pressure was so high in the pipe that the produced water rained down on the family’s home, livestock and yard a good 200 yards away.
On a chilly evening in October, Santa Fe-area residents packed into the St. Francis Auditorium for the second of what would be five public meetings held by the New Mexico Environment Department on the state’s plans for produced water. It was only a matter of minutes before attendees began interrupting the presentation with accusations of the state poisoning waterways and calls for a moratorium on fracking in the name of climate change. Residents and environmentalists alike are concerned about the state’s plan to research and eventually regulate the recycling and reuse of treated produced water, a byproduct of oil and gas extraction that contains both naturally-occurring minerals, hydrocarbons and rare earth metals, as well as chemical additives and drilling constituents that are used in hydraulic fracking. Every barrel of oil generates four to seven barrels of produced water, according to Bill Brancard, general counsel of the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD).
State Engineer John D’Antonio’s ties to a desalination industry group has some environmentalists concerned about how the state is promulgating new rules to handle produced water. D’Antonio, who was appointed to the position of state engineer by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier this year, is listed as a director of the New Mexico Desalination Association, a 501(c)6 nonprofit “business league.” The barebones website doesn’t list its members or board of directors, but the nonprofit’s filings with the Secretary of State office indicates John D’Antonio sits on the board of directors. RELATED: As NM’s water boss, D’Antonio is back on the job
The nonprofit hosted a controversial produced water conference in Santa Fe last year, with the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute and New Mexico Tech’s Petroleum Recovery Research Center. The conference drew protests from environmentalists concerned about how the wastewater from oil and gas production may be used in the future.
The state is currently gathering public and stakeholder input before developing policy and regulation around potentially using fracking wastewater, also called produced water, for use outside the oil and gas sector. Environmental groups are concerned that the process is being driven by industry interests, and could result in unsafe water being introduced to the state’s water resources.
RELATED: More questions than answers on how to reuse produced water
Given those concerns, D’Antonio’s current roles as both state engineer and board member to the association is problematic, said Rebecca Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner for WildEarth Guardians.