New Mexico's oil and gas wastewater reuse experiments to begin in 2022

After more than two years of experiments New Mexico still hopes oil and gas wastewater could be re-purposed outside of the industry for uses like watering crops.

Four studies into different treatment technologies for the water were planned for the first quarter of 2022.

Pre-treatment and thermal treatment studies were planned at the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility in Alamogordo, along with a pilot treatment demonstration in the San Juan Basin in northwest New Mexico and a thermal treatment study in Houston.

The work was planned through a partnership of the State of New Mexico and New Mexico State University, which formed its Produced Water Research Consortium in 2019 to study how water produced during extraction activities could be treated and reused.

Known as produced water, the fluid is brought to the surface from underground along with crude oil and natural gas, heavy in brine and other toxic chemicals.

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For every barrel of oil – about 42 gallons— up to 10 barrels of water can be produced.

Traditionally, produced water is reinjected underground for disposal though many energy companies in recent years began treating it for reuse in hydraulic fracturing.

That effort came as environmental concerns arose related to contamination and induced seismicity brought on by injection wells, along with the need for more water in the Permian Basin region to meet the demands of continually growing oil and gas industry.

In a drought-stricken state like New Mexico, the second-highest oil producer in the nation, the State and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham saw the millions of gallons of water produced annually by oil and gas as an opportunity to address increasing water scarcity.

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The Consortium published a research plan in January, the culmination of its activities in 2020 and 2021 to study produced water’s technical, economic and public health impacts and how they could be addressed in its reuse.

Consortium Director Michael Hightower said the plan would help direct the research needed to achieve its goals and develop a means to treat the water to a quality usable outside oil and gas.

“The produced water research plan focuses on identifying the research, development, testing and evaluation needed to enable the state of New Mexico to establish standards for the treatment and safe fit-for-purpose reuse of oil and gas wastewater for industrial and commercial applications to improve economic development and fresh water supply security and sustainability,” he said.

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Rebecca Roose, deputy cabinet secretary at the New Mexico Environment Department said the research began following passage of the State’s Produced Water Act in 2019 and came amid work at the state level to reduce freshwater use in drilling operations.

Together, Roose said, both efforts could mitigate the environmental impact of fossil fuel production, a leading industry in New Mexico that accounts for about a third of the State budget.

“Since enactment of the Produced Water Act in 2019, New Mexico has made huge strides in reducing freshwater use in oil and gas production,” Roose said.

“Meanwhile, New Mexico is also on the leading edge of regional and national research into complex questions surrounding the treatment and reuse of produced water to increase drought resiliency while protecting public health and our precious natural resources.”

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Can oil and gas wastewater be used elsewhere?

The Consortium sought to address multiple topics using six working groups.

A treatment and technology group will track development and demonstration schedules and planned to begin to review and test new technologies in 2022.

The toxicology working group was dedicated to finding risks with produced water, while the data collection groups was studying the volumes and other data of produced water gathered from disposal wells and other sources around the state.

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Other groups investigated the infrastructure needed for large-scale produced water treatment, the socio-economic impacts and public education on the topic.

The groups planned to meet biweekly throughout 2022.

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“New Mexico is one of the states with large production of oil and gas produced water; and therefore, produced water reuse could be significant in volumetric relation to the state’s total water budget in regions where produced water is available,” read the introduction to the Consortium’s research plan.

“There are opportunities for treated produced water reuse applications both within and outside the oil and gas sector.”

But environmental groups in New Mexico lambasted state efforts to use produced water and release it into the environment.

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Groups like the Sierra Club Rio Grande characterized produced water as “toxic waste” that could only be mitigated by curbing fossil fuel production, and that more research was needed into the contents of the water – which is often protected as proprietary information.

“We must eliminate these data gaps before even considering intentionally introducing produced water to our soil and drinking water,” read a Sierra Club report. “End users, including farmers and ranchers, need to know much more about the wastewater they might receive.”

After pressure from environmentalists, New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division in 2021 altered its rules to outlaw spills of produced water, oil and other fluids and gases association with fossil fuel development.

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This meant that should a spill or release occur it would incur immediate fines and penalties as opposed to waiting for mitigation efforts taken by the operator.

“The previous rules effectively condoned dangerous oil and gas industry spills, providing no reason for companies to take precautions and prevent spills from happening in the first place,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.

“Thankfully, this glaring loophole is now closed, ensuring New Mexico and New Mexicans will no longer be vulnerable to the devastating effects of oil and waste spills.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: New Mexico's oil and gas wastewater experiments to begin in 2022