New Mexico’s “Fracking” Legacy
As the natural gas boom has spread to the eastern United States, the term “fracking” has become common in news reports coming out of Pennsylvania and New York. But fracking has been a part of New Mexico’s history for decades.
After all, fracking is not a new technology. Halliburton pioneered hydraulic fracturing, as it’s officially known, in the 1940s. And it has been used around New Mexico for decades.
John Bemis is Governor Susana Martinez’s cabinet secretary of New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. He explains that when he first moved to Farmington, industry was already using hydraulic fracturing on natural gas wells in the San Juan Basin:
I moved to Farmington in 1994, and I can tell you that the frack trucks were rolling up and down the streets back in 1994 and they had been going for 10, 15, or 20 years before that. Fracturing in New Mexico is not a new concept by any shape of the imagination. It has been occurring—and it has been occurring safely—for many, many, many years.
Fracking has been happening for a long time and its use is widespread in New Mexico. There are about 60,000 oil and gas wells in New Mexico—and 95 percent of those are fracked.
Wally Drangmeister of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association explains that when fracking, oil and natural gas drillers pump a mixture of sand and water into a well formation. At high pressures, that opens up small fissures. A “proppant” is then used to hold open the fissures so that the oil or natural gas can flow up out of the well.
But fracking also involves chemicals—chemicals that can include formaldehyde, benzene, and hydrochloric acid. Under a new state law,operators in New Mexico report the chemicals they’ve used, but only 45 days after fracking has already occurred. Also, in order to protect trade secrets, New Mexico’s rule doesn’t require operators to report the complete cocktail of chemicals used.
Drangmeister acknowledges that theoretically, there are risks. But, he says, the process is safe:
Anytime you’re dealing with an industrial process, you absolutely have to have monitoring, absolutely need to take safety precautions, but in the case of New Mexico, there [have] been tens of thousands of wells that have been treated with hydraulic fracturing and there’s been no incidence of any groundwater contamination.
That’s not the case everywhere. Last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that drinking water drawn from deep below the earth in Pavillion, Wyoming contained high methane levels, benzene concentrations well above safe standards, and other chemicals associated with fracking fluids. The oil and gas industry has challenged those findings, but the EPA stands by its study.
And while there are no incidents of groundwater contamination in New Mexico from the process of fracking, the waste from fracking is another story.
Once that mixture of water, sand, chemicals, and either oil or gas is pumped up to the surface, it’s stored in waste pits that are about the size of swimming pools. And that’s where problems have occurred.
In fact, a state study showed that contamination from drilling pits was widespread. Between the mid-1980s and 2003, there were about 7,000 cases of soil and water contamination—and 400 cases of groundwater contamination
That prompted the state to enact the “pit rule” in 2008, under Governor Bill Richardson. That rule required drillers to line waste pits or to use closed loop systems.
Industry opposed the rule. And during her campaign, Martinez promised she’d do away with it.
Now, the state is considering changes.
Over the past few months, the state’s Oil Conservation Commission has been holding hearings. Experts weigh in, and members of the public can testify, too.
Gwen Lachelt is the founder and director of Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project. While attending those hearings, Lachelt has learned that those waste pits are getting bigger.
According to Lachelt, “companies are now starting to use these huge frack pits—and a lot of people are referring to these as frack lakes—that could be the size of ten Olympic swimming pools.”
Those “lakes” can service up to forty wells, two miles apart. Lachelt continues:
What we have discovered, being a part of these pit rule hearings in Santa Fe, is that really what the pit rule changes are about are sliding these huge frack lakes in under the current pit rule without a stakeholder process that it is really necessary here. If industry is really moving forward with constructing these frack lakes all over New Mexico, it is incumbent upon the state of New Mexico to have a stakeholder’s process on best practices for these huge frack lakes. Otherwise we’re going to see such widespread contamination that it’s going to be impossible to get ahead of if they start allowing this today.
Hearings on the pit rule will continue in August, and the commission should make its decision this fall.
Meanwhile, about 1,500 new wells are drilled in New Mexico each year. Almost all of those are fracked, and each has a pit.
For more information:
-To view maps of the extent of drilling within the state of New Mexico, you can view county-by-county maps from 2005, the most recent year for which maps are available.
Choose “oil field education” from the menu in the left margin.
-To watch a video about hydraulic fracturing on the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association website:
-For more information about the US Environmental Protection Agency’s groundwater contamination study in Pavillion, Wyoming:
-For more photos of well fields in the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico: