Last Tuesday, December 15, the New Mexico State Land Office announced they would be halting the sale of freshwater to oil and natural gas companies for hydraulic fracturing. Many companies had already been developing ways of recycling the water used in the fracking process. The halt of sales of freshwater from state lands will most likely increase recycling technology.
From the New Mexico State Land Office:
Freshwater is an ever-scarcer resource, and the newly adopted State Land Office policy seeks to encourage the industry to use recycled or produced water instead of freshwater, which can impact already scarce local and municipal freshwater supplies (New Mexico town, oil companies in fight over water use). The new policy does not affect the issuance of freshwater easements for other purposes, such as agricultural or municipal use.
Drilling and completing an oil and gas well, including the process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” can mostly be accomplished without fresh water. A relatively small amount of fresh water is required for drilling to avoid contamination of geologic formations where other freshwater exists. Fracking consumes millions of gallons more water than drilling and does not require fresh water. Any freshwater used for drilling or fracking is permanently disposed of unless it’s recycled within the industry. If existing technologies were used to prioritize recycling, that water would be available for reuse within the oil and gas industry and could drastically reduce the amount of freshwater used in the process.
To visualize the impact of continuing to allow the use of freshwater for fracking, an August 2019 Houston Chronicle article noted, “In the arid Permian Basin, the nation’s most productive oil field, drilling and fracking operations consume more than 195 million gallons of water per day in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico — enough water to fill nearly 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools.”
Water use data reported by companies to FracFocus indicates that nearly 14.5 billion gallons of water were used for overall production in New Mexico in 2019, with recycled or produced water comprising only a fraction of the total water use. That is equivalent to the amount of water needed for an entire year of domestic and household use for over 278,000 people, or roughly one-eighth of New Mexicans.
Oil production on state trust land in the Permian Basin is at an all-time high despite disruptions beginning in February 2020 brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and a global price war. A byproduct of that increased oil production is an increase in the availability of produced water. A study by Global Water Intelligence estimates that every gallon of oil produced in the Permian Basin yields 4-10 barrels of produced water.
Commissioner of Public Lands Stephanie Garcia Richard released the following statement regarding the policy change:
“This shift in policy represents the State Land Office doing our small part to help protect and preserve New Mexico’s scarce and sacred freshwater resources. Water is life, and wider intervention is needed from the State Legislature to address New Mexico’s water issues in critical areas. Rather than looking at freshwater as a commodity for sale to the highest bidder, we should look at the advancements in water recycling and produced water as our way forward. There is simply no reason for freshwater to be used for fracking. Freshwater is necessary to grow food. It is not necessary for oil and gas production, except when drilling through freshwater areas.
“The importance of conserving scarce freshwater so that it is available for the uses that require it while discouraging the use of freshwater for purposes that do not require it is the message we are trying to send in this policy. It is important to also emphasize the outsize impact that freshwater use for oil and gas can have on our small communities, like those in proximity to the Permian Basin, who are fighting industry for access to freshwater.
“After the wells run dry, which is an increasing threat as we battle climate change, there is no economical process in which we can manufacture freshwater or water that is safe to drink or use to grow our food. If we are reliant on an economy based on getting oil out of the ground, we should be prioritizing the use of recycled or produced water to do so. Our future generations are counting on us to smart make decisions that will profoundly affect their quality of life.”