In New Mexico, it is OK for oil field operators to spill oil and liquid waste into the environment.
Dramatic increases in fracking over the past few years have brought great increases of oil and gas liquid waste. The waste is a combination of fracking flow-back waste and deep, salt-laden groundwater commingled with oil and gas. Operators report four barrels of waste liquid for every barrel of oil.
“Produced water” is the oil and gas industry’s name for its poisonous waste liquid. Permian Basin waste liquids are more than 10 percent salt by weight. All produced water is grossly contaminated and toxic.
Spills are common. Two spills of waste liquids per day account for about half of all reported spills. Operators must self-report spills to the state and are supposed to clean them up. Actual state oversight is slight. No penalties apply.
The industry self-reported 166,000 acre-feet of waste liquids were produced in 2019. The state engineer reported freshwater used for fracking in 2018 was 60,000 acre-feet. He called that a problem.
Freshwater used for fracking adds substantially to the overall oil field wastewater disposal burdens. Fracking turns good water into waste liquids.
The top-ranked New Mexico oil producer says it uses 98 percent recycled produced water instead of freshwater for fracking. Others could do the same but choose not to.
At the same time New Mexico’s oil and gas production, state and local revenues, and spills have increased, state government enforcement has been virtually absent. Inspections and requirements were decimated by the Martinez administration and remain ineffective today.
Occasionally, oil and gas wastewater spills draw public attention. The burst wastewater pipeline that exploded and sprayed a family, their home and their animals last year was news. The responsible company received no penalty and continues to receive permits and approvals. The family had to euthanize their animals and move because their home and land were contaminated.
Less public attention has been paid to a large waste spill into Chaco Wash and groundwater that provides tribal communities’ drinking water. These were two of the 2,090 liquid waste spills self-reported by oil and gas registered operators from 2017-19, according to public spills data on the Oil Conservation Division website.
New Mexico’s top-ranked oil and gas producer reports a relatively low number of spills per million barrels of oil and gas (equivalent barrels). The second- and fourth-ranked producers, according to posted Oil Conservation Division data, have much worse records, with almost 10 times as many wastewater spills per million barrels of energy. The operator for the first spill described above has a spill record that is 18 times as bad. That operator’s explosion and dayslong fire in 2017 drove a Chaco-area tribal community from its homes.
Operators cite equipment failure, corrosion, human error and overflows as causing 85 percent of reported spills. One New Mexico operator with a relatively good spill record said investments are required to prevent spills. Other operators choose to allow many more spills.
New Mexico spends a third and a fourth of the respective regulatory and enforcement budgets of North Dakota, which produces a similar volume of oil and gas, and Oklahoma, which has a similar number of oil and gas wells.
The oil and gas industry can’t be let off the hook with no regulation, no inspections and no enforcement. New Mexicans deserve better. The Legislature continues to take oil and gas revenue while failing to spend what is necessary to protect public health, the environment and freshwater from the oil and gas industry’s huge volumes of toxic, salty liquid waste.
Norm Gaume is a native of New Mexico and a graduate of Hobbs High School and New Mexico State University. He is a retired water and wastewater engineer, lives in rural Sandoval County, and subscribes to The New Mexican.