New Mexico is an arid state perpetually on the cusp of drought. With climate change altering precipitation patterns for the worse and the state’s population continuing to grow, creative solutions are in the works, including recycling wastewater from hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas.
Last month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a “first-of-its-kind strategic water supply” program that would invest $500 million in treating produced water, an extremely salty byproduct of oil and gas extraction that can include toxic fracking chemicals, oil droplets, sand, rock fragments, and other gunk picked up along the way. Water experts and environmentalists wonder if the enterprise will do much to address the state’s water woes, or if it will primarily provide more government support for fossil fuel production that is worsening global warming.
Injecting pressurized water into shale formations to extract oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing can require as much as 16 million gallons of water per well, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
New Mexico was the nation’s second-largest crude oil-producing state in 2022, after Texas, accounting for more than 13 percent of total U.S. crude oil production. According to FracTracker, as of April 1, 2022, there were 66,580 oil and gas wells in New Mexico, but the state does not track how many wells are actively using hydraulic fracturing. The oil and gas industry in New Mexico in 2022 produced more than two billion barrels of wastewater, over half of which was injected into wells across the state for permanent disposal. Gov. Lujan Grisham’s administration believes this produced water can be treated and used for water-intensive processes such as manufacturing green hydrogen, storing wind and solar power, and building electric vehicles, microchips, solar panels, and wind turbines. This in turn would help preserve fast-depleting fresh groundwater supplies in the state’s aquifers.
“In arid states like ours, every drop counts. A warming climate throws that fact into sharper relief every day,” said Gov. Lujan Grisham. “This is innovation in action: We’re leveraging the private sector to strengthen our climate resiliency and protect our precious freshwater resources.”
The plan relies on contracts with the private sector. The New Mexico Environment Department will seek proposals from companies that are interested in building treatment infrastructure, with the state contractually obligated to purchase the water. The $500 million in funding will come from state taxes on oil, gas, and other natural resources.
Bruce M. Thompson, professor emeritus in civil engineering at the University of New Mexico who ran the school’s Water Resources Program, said that managing produced water in New Mexico is challenging and expensive. He said more than half of the industry’s salty wastewater is pumped into underground disposal wells. One major risk is that large volumes of water leads to increased risk of manmade earthquakes, as have happened in Oklahoma, Kansas, and other oil and gas producing regions.
Thompson said the Permian Basin, a rich oil and gas field underlying western Texas and southeastern New Mexico, has seen a rapid rise in the number and magnitude of earthquakes in recent years. Accordingly, regulators in New Mexico are considering limiting the number of new saltwater disposal wells, thus reducing the volume of produced water that can be disposed of.
“The oil and gas industry is very concerned limiting produced water disposal will in turn limit oil and gas production, which will have a large impact on the economy and especially the New Mexico state budget,” said Thompson. “I speculate that the purpose of Governor Lujan Grisham’s initiative is as much to identify produced water management alternatives as it is to provide an alternate source of water in arid Southeast New Mexico.”
Thompson said the cost of treatment to make fracking wastewater suitable for crop irrigation, public supply, or as a supply for hydrogen generation or other clean energy uses will be very high. “I am doubtful that large-scale produced water desalination will be economically feasible unless the cost of treatment and reuse is less expensive than the cost of disposal in saltwater disposal wells,” he said.
While Gov. Lujan Grisham is a Democrat with a climate plan to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, oil and gas operations have proliferated under her watch since 2019, increasing dramatically in recent years. Meanwhile, a recent Environmental Defense Fund analysis determined that the state is falling far short of its 2030 target, and statewide emissions are on track to fall only 1 percent by 2025 and 13 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels.
In her first year in office, Grisham signed the Produced Water Act, laying the groundwork for using wastewater from oil and gas for a variety of purposes. The New Mexico Environment Department recently proposed water reuse standards that standardize protocols, set data-sharing requirements, and establish other parameters meant to make the process safer and more transparent.
Michael Hightower is director of the state’s Produced Water Research Consortium, which is run through a partnership with New Mexico State University. He said the volume of produced water being generated -- about 300 million gallons per day, or six times what Albuquerque uses in a day -- could have a significant impact on water supplies for industrial applications and create economic development opportunities for New Mexico.
“Treatment and reuse by industry and municipalities is the quickest and most cost-effective way for New Mexico and other western states to create new water supplies quickly and cheaply,” he said. “The cost of treatment is currently less than or equal to the cost of disposal. For most industrial applications the treated water does not need to be of drinking water quality, therefore less treatment is needed and the health and safety requirements for industrial water reuse standards is much less stringent than treating to drinking water standards.”
He said it’s a big misconception that water conservation alone can solve all the state’s water problems.
“Much of our water is from groundwater, and those resources are quickly running dry,” Hightower said. “New Mexico and many western states need to identify new water. Most western states have significant brackish water supplies -- so that will be our new water.”
Daniel Timmons, Wild Rivers Program Director with WildEarth Guardians, said the state could make dramatic strides in addressing its water scarcity problem and become a global leader in water conservation and climate resilience for a fraction of the price tag of the $500 million proposal. He pointed to measures such as financial and technical assistance for farmers to move beyond water-thirsty crops like alfalfa and more careful state regulation and conservation of water.
“This is desperately needed so that the State can actually begin enforcing existing water rights, instead of allowing the Wild West free-for-all that currently characterizes much of New Mexico’s water rights administration,” he said.
While New Mexico’s program may be unique in its formation, the state’s Permian Basin partner in fossil fuel extraction, Texas, is also looking for ways to treat and reuse oilfield wastewater. In November, Texans voted for the creation of the Texas Water Fund, which required amending the state constitution. The fund will be used for a variety of water conservation and supply needs, as well as financing water projects across the state, including marine and brackish water desalination and drilling wastewater treatment projects.
An October 2023 Inside Climate News analysis of wastewater water spills in Texas found that from 2013 to 2022, oil and gas companies reported more than 10,000 spills totaling more than 148 million gallons of produced water. While companies deploy vacuum trucks to suck up the water in the case of a spill, only about 40 percent of the water reported spilled from 2013 to 2022 was recovered.
Thompson said Texas and New Mexico’s differing water rights regulations have resulted in the growth of an industry of water purveyors and wastewater disposal companies that transport large volumes of both freshwater and produced water across state borders with relatively little oversight.
“My one recommendation to the New Mexico Legislature and regulators is pass legislation and adopt regulations to quantify the flow of water across the border,” said Thompson. “This will help us develop better methods of managing and possibly reusing the water resources on both sides of the border.”
Zacariah Hildenbrand, a biochemist at the University of Texas, El Paso, has also spoken about how the science and regulations in place in both New Mexico and Texas are not up to date with the push for water reuse.
“The problem with beneficial reuse is that, whether you’re in Texas or New Mexico, we really don’t have robust regulations,” Hildebrand told Inside Climate News. “There is a cycle where everybody wants to support greater beneficial reuse, but we don’t have the standards. And in order to get the standards, we need to do science.”
Lead photo: A warning label is seen on the side of a tank holding oilfield wastewater on a ranch near Crossroads, New Mexico (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel).