Environmental engineering professor Pei Xu laughed when asked if a tank of “produced water” could be mistaken for fresh water, ripe for drinking.

“Generally, you’ll find produced water is blacker and has a lot of hydrocarbons in it, so we should not drink it,” said the New Mexico State University educator, who has studied the issue of wastewater treatment for years.

Just what to do with produced water — a byproduct of oil and gas production that may consist of salt, oil, grease, naturally radioactive materials and other toxins — is an increasingly vexing question for both environmentalists and the oil and gas industry.

One thing is certain: Oil and gas production, a major driver of the state’s economy, pulls up a lot of that produced water in its many operations around the nation. Based on a report released last month by the Groundwater Protection Council, which used 2012 data (the most recent available), the 1 million oil and gas wells in the country generated about 21.2 billion barrels of produced water each year.

In 2012, New Mexico wells produced 775.93 million barrels of water — or 32.6 billion gallons, the council said. Oil and gas companies use about 45 percent of that water in their operations to save freshwater sources they would otherwise utilize, according to the report.

Most of the other 55 percent is injected back into underground wells — raising concerns about possible environmental impacts on the aquifers, the potential to induce earthquakes and what to do if that well space runs out.

The product itself, experts say, is complex. During the fracking process, produced water — which may originate as natural water far below the surface — is brought to the surface along with the oil and gas flow. If you dipped your finger into a tank of produced water and sampled it, the liquid would taste more salty than seawater. And it might contain contaminants.

“It’s like old seawater, really old seawater — and really not-good-for-you seawater,” said Bill Brancard, general counsel for the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, during a June water summit meeting in Santa Fe.

As the oil industry booms, particularly in southeastern New Mexico, scientists, environmentalists, oil and gas proponents, and state legislators are looking for ways to treat and reuse that water, if possible — particularly because it will cut down on the reliance on freshwater for those operations.

But creating a plan is a challenge for those involved in the issue, especially as it comes on the heels of the national report that makes clear it’s going to take a lot of time and money to figure out what to do with fracking water while protecting the environment.

Some see the problem as insurmountable. For others, it’s an opportunity to treat and reuse the water for industrial and agricultural uses – and maybe, some think, even for drinking water.

“I think fundamentally the idea of taking a contaminated wastewater of any sort and turning it into a useful resource is intriguing,” said Jeri Sullivan Graham, a research professor at the University of New Mexico and one of the authors of the report. “But it can also be a very scary thing.”

Ryan Flynn, head of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said the technology may exist to treat the water and ensure it’s up to drinking level standards, but a social stigma may stand in the way.

“You run into a social taboo,” he said. “It’s a huge yuck factor, and people don’t like that idea that we are going to reuse wastewater in that fashion.”

But Flynn added he does think the oil and gas wastewater could be treated to an acceptable level where it could be used for agricultural or other industrial purposes.

State lawmakers want that to happen. They crafted and passed House Bill 546, a sweeping piece of legislation that will tighten oversight on production and use of wastewater, plus impose fines on oil and gas companies that violate the state’s Oil and Gas Act.

The bill makes it clear that all produced water falls under the oversight of the gas and oil operators who draw it up and are responsible for arranging transfer and transportation of it. The company or transferring entity is responsible for disposal, treatment and reuse of that water — though specifics on how to treat and reuse it have yet to be developed.

The bill also requires those companies to pay for freshwater resources in cases where they have the option to use produced water in their operations.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the bill into law following this year’s 60-day legislative session.

One of main goals of the legislation, said Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, one of the bill’s sponsors, is to encourage oil and gas companies to cut back on their reliance on freshwater through new policies. But given that the law just went into effect, there remains some uncertainty about how the law will work.

“It’s way out in the future … not so far that it’s Star Trek, but it’s not on the horizon,” Egolf said.

The bill moved ahead despite some concern and criticism raised by environmental groups, who say that while it contains some good components, it does not go far enough in regulating the oil and gas industry.

Noting that the most extreme penalty for any violation will top $200,000 — not including penalties that may be applied by a court decision — Rachel Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner for the nonprofit WildEarth Guardians, said that amounts to “just pennies” for oil and gas companies.

She said there has been no proof that the industry is safely recycling its wastewater, because much of the oil and gas industry information is proprietary and not easy to access.

Robert McEntyre, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said oil and gas companies do not report how much freshwater versus produced water they use in their operations.

Xu said one concern is the potential for spills of that wastewater as it is being transported from a drilling site to either a treatment center or an underground well for reinjection.

“If we have a spill, it will cause an environmental contamination,” she said.

Likewise, she said, if any underground accidents occurred during the reinjection process, or the pressure involved pushed the wastewater into a shallow aquifer, “there could be a mingle of the contaminated injected water with shallow drinking water.”

So far, she said, there’s no evidence that has happened in New Mexico. State Environment Secretary James Kenney echoed that view, saying he has never heard of a situation where the injection of produced water has contaminated freshwater aquifers.

But there are other concerns about the injection of that water that hastens the need to find other ways to use it. Studies of increased earthquake activity in Oklahoma suggest the depth at which wastewater is injected may be inciting seismic activity. Xu said she has concerns about that happening in New Mexico.

Flynn said New Mexico’s oil and gas operators have learned from those Oklahoma projects.

“We look very closely at where any injection wells will be located so that they are not in areas where there has been seismic activity,” he said.

But Kenney said there could be a point at which “seismicity is induced by injecting produced water” back into the ground. He also is concerned about the potential to run out of underground wells to put all that wastewater, he said.

Kenney said his division will soon initiate a series of public forums to solicit input from citizens on how best to make rules to give the new law teeth when it comes to oversight, regulation and the issue of produced water.

“We will discuss the scientific and technological advances being made with produced water treatment” at those gatherings, he said.

But coming up with the right water treatment analysis and technology for produced water is likely to take some time, said Mike Nicholaus, special projects director for Groundwater Protection Council, a nonprofit organization whose members consist of state groundwater regulatory agencies.

Ultimately, said Nicholaus, one of the authors of the report, it comes down to preserving as much freshwater as possible under the circumstances.

“The need for water is great, and that water has a much higher use value for crop irrigation and other needs,” he said.

Such as drinking water?

“I would have to call that a somewhat desperate situation at this point,” he said. “But if you don’t have any water, and you have to have water, you have a couple of choices: You pay the cost of treatment or you move the town.

“And if the town is Los Angeles,” he said, “you can’t move it.”

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

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