“Produced water” is a rather benign-sounding term for what should more accurately be called “wastewater from oil and gas operations.” In the process of extracting oil and gas from subsurface formations, a lot of produced water is also generated as a byproduct. Some estimates say that for every barrel of oil produced, an average of about 10 barrels of this water (although it varies widely depending on location) is also produced.
In the arid west, it is tempting to look at this as a potential source of “new” water. In addition, this wastewater is a headache for the oil and gas industry because it is expensive for them to dispose of it. Consequently, there is a movement across the country to figure out ways to “safely” reuse this wastewater. The New Mexico legislature added its own impetus in the 2019 legislative session, by passing HB546 (which includes “The Produced Water Act”) and charges New Mexico regulatory agencies with studying the issue of the use, disposal, and potential reuse applications of produced water, and to commence rule-making based on their findings.
It has long been legal in New Mexico for the oil and gas industry to reuse produced water within the industry, for example as a source of water for fracking operations, etc. This type of reuse at least has the benefit of lessening the use of freshwater resources for such purposes. Produced water that is not reused in this way is typically put in evaporation pits or re-injected in deep disposal wells. However, cheerleaders for additional applications of produced water have been advocating for using it in roadbuilding and construction, discharge to surface water bodies, and even for crop irrigation.
The problem with using produced water outside the industry is that it contains many unknown pollutants. First and foremost, it is almost always highly saline (“saltwater”) and not usable for humans, animals, or crops without treatment. In addition to salt, produced water often contains constituents found in oil production, including carcinogens such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. New Mexico’s unique geology often introduces other dangerous constituents, such as arsenic and radionuclides such as radium. Beyond these predictable contaminants, produced water often contains “flowback water” from oil and gas fracking fluids, which contain any number of proprietary chemicals that the industry does not want to disclose for competitive reasons.
Amigos Bravos’ position is that there are too many unknowns in produced water to safely treat it for use outside of the industry, and even if you could identify every single contaminant (which today is definitely not the case) the cost of treating the water to remove all these contaminants would be so prohibitively expensive as to make it impossible. Amigos Bravos is engaged with the staff at both the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) and the Environment Department (NMED) as they develop rulemaking and study the issue, and we have already provided numerous public comments outlining our concerns to both agencies.