Coming soon: Fracking fluid on New Mexico crops?!

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Oh fair New Mexico, we love you so… but there’s always something isn’t there?

Last month, former Wyoming-based rodeo clown Marvin Nash applied to start using “produced water” on crops here in New Mexico.

Wait, what? Hold on a minute. What does a rodeo clown from Wyoming know about putting contaminated water on crops? What do WE know about that?

Let’s break this down.

So first some background. “Produced water” is a murky term for a murky byproduct of the oil and gas industry. We’re all familiar with the term fracking at this point, but it’s worth remembering that the industry term is actually hydraulic fracturing, and that term hydraulic is key. The process requires IMMENSE amounts of water to start a well, between 5-8 MILLION gallons per well in the permian region of New Mexico and Texas. That water is treated with… well, no one is exactly sure because it’s all wrapped up in industry secrets, but we know there are lots of chemicals involved. Here’s a great quote about the chemical make-up of fracking fluid: “Fracking fluids fall within such cryptic categories as carrier/basefluid, biocides, scale inhibitors, solvents, friction reducers, additives, corrosion inhibitors, and non-ionic surfactants – which is a catch-all category for dozens of fluids like Naphthenic Acidethoxylate or Poly (Oxy-1,2-Ethanediyl), Alpha-(4-Nonylphenyl)- Omega-Hydroxy-, Branched.”

But the “chemically enhanced” water the oil and gas companies are putting down the hole isn’t even the end of the story when it comes to the produced water coming back up from the well. There is also a whole lot of existing water that’s been sitting down, mingling and percolating with the oil and gas for an eternity. This “formation” water actually makes up the bulk of all the produced water that comes up over the lifetime of the well. And it  can contain a toxic brew of compounds, heavy metals, a lot of salt, and even radioactive material.

So yeah, let’s just say the stuff being pumped into the ground and the water coming back out of the ground out there in oil country is full of things we don’t want anywhere near our drinking water and food supply, right?

But with the huge demands on freshwater for these processes in New Mexico we all are acutely aware of the stress this puts on our VERY limited water supply in our arid state. It was with this in mind that HB 546 was passed during the 2019 Legislature. It removed some administrative hurdles that were making it difficult for oil and gas companies to reuse their produced water for additional frack jobs and thus take some pressure off of local fresh water resources. Well, that and a much needed administrative penalty change for the Oil Conservation Division that was attached as a rider, prompting much excitement in seeing the bill pass.

Ok, so back to Mr. Nash and his plan to irrigate New Mexico crops with produced water. It turns out that the law around this idea is as murky as the “produced water” even before HB 546. According to news reports Nash waited until HB 546 was signed, presumably because of the optics the bill garnered, but its not clear anything would have stopped him from making the same proposal before the bill passed.  

According to the Christian Science Monitor article about the rodeo clown-turned water reclaimer, his ideas have been met with trepidation in Wyoming as well, although he does have one test area up and going.

Unanswered questions abound around the science of this process, that heretofore don’t seem to be answered in any easily found article or site. According to this incredibly cute cartoon, Nash’s company, Encore Environmental, simply “cleans the water” but that process isn’t ever described and there’s nothing about the quality of the “clean” water. Additionally, the resulting waste from the process of “cleaning” said water isn’t discussed. Remember, if “cleaning” this water was so easy, oil and gas companies would have been doing it for years to either reuse the water itself or to sell off for other purposes. Instead there are countless BILLIONS of gallons of tainted fracking fluid “stored” underground, in tanks, and in holding ponds across the country.

Oh, and what about energy needed for whatever kind of plant is needed for treatment? And transportation as well? The proposed test site for this project is near Jal but will the wells near there be enough to provide all the water the site needs or will more hazardous material be trucked in across Southeast New Mexico’s already congested and dangerous highways?

Nash seems to have found enough people to listen to his idea to the point that a third-party non-profit seems to have sprung up to promote his ideas. The Beneficial-Use Water Alliance touts Encore Environmental’s “patent pending” methods. It’s hard not to notice, however, that the Beneficial-Use Water Alliance is made up of Nash’s company, Encore Environmental, the University of Wyoming’s Center of Excellence for Produced Water Management and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Now far be it from us to make too many assumptions, but if Wyoming’s Stock Growers Association is anything like New Mexico’s then we know how right-of-center leaning they are and where their interests in ECOLOGY-friendly practices stop and their interests in ECONOMIC gains begin.

As for that University of Wyoming Center for Excellence… something something, well their own website touts their goals as working for oil and gas companies to figure out what to do with all their billions of gallons of produced water.

Not exactly the fairest and most balanced group to be promoting an untested and potentially harmful technology.     

New Mexico is a dry and arid state, with limited resources, especially water. The mineral deposits over there in the Permian basin are major components of our economic structure, at least for the time being. But that comes at a cost of billions of gallons of wasted water. While we’re all for figuring out ways for the oil and gas industry to utilize that waste for their operations so they aren’t using precious fresh water, it doesn’t seem prudent to jump straight to dumping it onto fields of crops without more known about what exactly is in that wastewater, the treatment process, the energy consumption, waste, and the long-term effects of that water in our food supply and natural environment.  

HB546 makes it clear that NMED is going to have to deal with these tough questions.  Hopefully they don’t fall for a slick pitch.

We’ll be watching for more as we know more. Stay tuned.