New Mexico’s Environment Department has taken a significant step towards sustainable water management by proposing a new set of regulations focusing on the reuse of wastewater, particularly from oil and natural gas drilling activities. This initiative, announced on Thursday, aims to address the challenges posed by the intensive water demands of fracking in the state’s robust energy sector.
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Recognizing New Mexico as the second-leading oil producer in the United States, the state is exploring innovative ways to repurpose the salty byproducts of drilling to conserve freshwater resources. With the backdrop of ongoing droughts depleting freshwater aquifers, this approach is seen as a crucial strategy to mitigate overuse and degradation of these vital water sources.
John Rhoderick, head of the water protection division at the Environment Department, emphasized the urgency of safeguarding fresh groundwater. He noted that the proposed regulations initially focus on “closed loop” projects, where treated oil-field water is reused without any discharge, ensuring a cautious and safe approach.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has also proposed a legislative initiative that aligns with these objectives. The governor seeks a $500 million investment from the Legislature to create a strategic new water source by purchasing treated water originating from oil and natural gas drilling. This initiative is not aimed at producing drinking water but rather at supplying treated water for various emerging industries, such as microchip manufacturing and hydrogen fuel production. However, some critics are concerned that this could inadvertently encourage further petroleum drilling.
Rhoderick pointed out that around 40% of New Mexico’s residential wastewater is already being reused post-treatment for purposes like irrigating public spaces. However, to support future economic and population growth, more extensive reuse options are necessary.
The new regulatory framework is a continuation of a 2019 state legislation initiative that urged the oil and natural gas industry to prioritize water treatment, reuse, and recycling over extracting from natural aquifers. This is especially pertinent given concerns over the depletion of the vast Ogallala Aquifer, which is a critical water source for communities in eastern New Mexico and stretches up to the Dakotas and Wyoming.
The development of these proposed rules involved collaboration with a public-private research consortium led by New Mexico State University. The consortium’s private sponsors include major energy companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil, oil services provider NGL Energy Partners, and infrastructure firm Tallgrass Energy, which is actively developing hydrogen ventures in New Mexico.