That didn’t take long. Encore Green Environmental Group filed a permit application to use produced water to irrigate NM land and they have identified a fracking operator eager to sell them the produced water. Before HB 546 was signed, we asked the Governor: why would you explicitly include agriculture as one of the potential uses of this produced water? No response. Well…..
Produced Water Coming to Your NM Salad Greens Soon
Devin Bent, a subscriber to the blog, sent me the link to this story. His comment in the email was that he hadn’t been as worried about HB 546 and its potentially allowing for produced water to be used for agriculture because he was confident that no farmer would be stupid enough to use produced water for irrigation. So much for that comforting thought. Just two months after the session closed, Encore Environmental Group has a fracking partner from which they can obtain produced water. They have identified the technology they intend to use to treat the water. They have identified a farmer willing to use that produced water.and they have now submitted an application for a state permit.
HB 546 sailed through both chambers with nary a debate. No wonder it moved quickly, it was supported by Marathon Oil, ConocoPhillips, XTO Energy, New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, and the New Mexico Business Coalition. After its passage, Speaker Egolf who gushed “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.” Here he was referring not to New Mexicans drinking produced water or for its being used in agriculture, but rather that by virtue of fracking industry being able to treat and reuse water used in fracking, the industry would not be using as much water from our aquifer.
Certainly, southeastern NM has a serious need to preserve water. And fracking consumed 40 billion gallons of water in 2018. But while bill advocates point to how HB 546 would allow fracking operations to treat and reuse fracked water, language in the bill also would allow the use of this water for agricultural or even for public consumption. The reuse of produced water for further fracking MIGHT be okay, but permit me a bit of skepticism over its use for anything else because of who oversees the testing and use of this water: The Oil Conservation Division of the Energy and Natural Resources Department. Here, the problem is that the Oil Conservation Division’s primary objective is to advance oil and gas extraction and their new director is a former exec for Marathon Oil. Sort of like the fox minding the hen house.
From a recent report in In Depth: “In the fracking process water is laced with fracking chemicals, as well as chemicals and metals freed with the fossil fuels, including naturally occurring radioactivity. The water is considered industrial waste and disposed of in deep injection wells.”
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency draft white paper assessed the state of research on produced water and concluded “there remain important scientific questions related to the human health and environmental implications of using treated produced water for applications outside the oil and natural gas industry.” It cautions, “treated produced water could contain chemical constituents that may harm human health, but that are not regulated by the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations.” More troubling is that according to that report, the NMED has no mechanism to require testing for those contaminants. Red flags all over the place, but the legislature with a not so subtle push from NMOGA, forged on.
At a post Roundhouse session debrief with a panel of Santa Fe Democratic legislators, Speaker Egolf was asked about why agriculture was specifically listed among potential uses for produced water and how could he view fostering the development of “produced water” as such a positive environmental outcome. He reassured us that the intent for use of produced water was to reuse that water in future fracking activities, thereby reducing the amount of water used in fracking. He cited the amount of water used in fracking currently and said that anything we can do to reduce that level of water use, should be welcome by environmentalists. As he spoke, I thought to myself: There is another way to reduce that water use, reduce or cease fracking.
Fat chance of that. SB 374, the fracking moratorium bill never even got a hearing and with the state Oil Conservation Division releasing new numbers showing that New Mexico produced a record 246 million barrels of oil last year, it is hard to see the state keeping it in the ground soon. So, HB 546 is hailed as groundbreaking environmental legislation because the state has not figured out how it can pass truly groundbreaking environmental legislation, as to do so would require that we keep it in the ground. Instead, we laud reducing the horrific amount of water used in fracking as game changing at the same time that we are assured that “produced water” will never be used in agriculture without significant improvement in our technology for treating that water.
I wondered at the time: if it is going to be years before produced water can be used for agriculture, why include it in the bill? Plenty of time to do that when the advances in treatment occur. But in a capitalist world, there will always be an entrepreneur willing to seek profit no matter the cost or risk involved to our environment. And so, enter Encore Green Environmental Group. Their plan is to use produced water to irrigate 3000 acres of agricultural land. Given the state of the current water treatment capacity and the number of toxins in produced water, what could possibly go wrong?
Well, apparently NMOGA thought plenty could go wrong, because a clause in HB 546: ”Upon transfer of the produced water, transferees shall be liable for the use, disposition, transfer, sale, conveyance, transport, recycling, reuse or treatment of the produced water;” In one sentence, HB 546 ensures that if a fracking operator sells produced from their operations, whoever buys it is fully liable to any consequences. So, if five years from now a cancer cluster is identified in farm workers working in fields with produced water or that those consuming produce grown with produced water irrigation, the fracker has washed his hands of all responsibility.
This effort will no doubt have to pass through some regulatory hurdles, but given the lay of the land these days, those hurdles may not be to formidable. It will be up to us to ensure that hearings are packed to oppose these efforts unless and until the scientific community has verified without question the safety of this application of produced water. But from an environmental perspective, let’s not lose sight that we shouldn’t even be discussing how to find ways to use produced water. We should using every tool we have at our disposal to reduce our reliance on fracking revenue. Instead, we have Senator John Arthur Smith gloating at the passage of the budget on March 15, “Drill, baby, drill.”
No question, New Mexico’s financial reliance on gas and oil is no easy challenge to address, but we should be applying all possible resources to identifying ways to expedite our transition to a renewable, sustainable and fossil fuel free economy. Yesterday, instead of gloating about how we are benefiting from this suicidal path. And just as the indigenous populations of Four Corners should not be sacrificed in this process, neither should those living in southwest New Mexico. Progressives from Northern NM need to respect the perspectives and economic realities of those living in that region of the state, as they do those living in Four Corners. This will not be n easy transition to make and so we need all the impacted communities at the table as we attempt to make that transition a just one. Click here to read the full article about plans to use produced water in agriculture.
And thank you Devin Bent for alerting me to this report.
Paul & Roxanne