In the dry Southwestern state of New Mexico, state officials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are seriously considering an attempt to clean up toxic wastewater from hydrofracked oil and gas wells so it can be used in agriculture. And as drinking water.
Seriously? Recycling fracking wastewater for drinking?
In published reports in the last two weeks, this notion surfaced against a political backdrop of keeping the oil and gas industry fiscally healthy and profitable.
“Oil and gas in New Mexico provide over a third of our general fund,” Ken McQueen, head of the state’s department of Energy, Mineral and Natural Resources said in the Washington Post. “We have to be concerned we’re doing what’s necessary into the future to make sure this industry continues to be alive and vibrant.”
McQueen gushed that part of keeping the industry vibrant could include using cleaned-up toxic wastewater to irrigate crops and provide water for domestic taps. He also opined it might be used to revive dried-up wildlife wetlands.
An added benefit, which he didn’t emphasize, is that it would save oil and gas companies large sums of money now spent on injecting the toxic wastewater into deep wells.
If this cleanup scheme seems a horrendously bad idea, that’s because it is.
Hydrofracking wastewater is almost always disposed of by injecting it deep into the earth because the stew of chemicals in it is so toxic. The chemical-laced wastewater also often contains additional hazardous substances picked up in the drilling process, including radioactive material.
The idea that fracking wastewater could be cleaned up is certainly attractive in arid oil-producing states. It takes 4 million to 8 million gallons of water to drill each oil or gas well, sometimes resulting in water shortages in communities where fracking takes place.
The cleanup option is also attractive because when wastewater is injected into the earth, it can trigger earthquakes.
But the technical and political hurdles are huge and complicated.
The politics are complicated because the fracking industry is exempt from key provisions of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
Nor are companies required to disclose the chemicals they put into the hydrofracking cocktail injected into the ground. The chemicals are a closely guarded secret and considered propriety information.
But researchers report that benzene, toluene, xylene, methanol, acetic acid, naphthalene and formaldehyde are among hundreds of potentially toxic-to-human additives in the water injected during the drilling process.
Any cleanup efforts must require full disclosure of that mix, including names of all chemicals and exact amounts used so the wastewater can be adequately tested after going through a yet-to-be determined cleanup process.
Expect energy companies to balk at disclosure.
And then there is the question of water quality standards.
People expect that the water that flows from their taps and used to irrigate the food grown for their consumption is clean.
But to government regulators and industry “clean” water is defined as meeting whatever water quality standards are set by the government.
In any attempt to clean up fracking wastewater for domestic and agricultural use, officials would need to set acceptable levels of the chemical additives that could remain in the “cleaned” water. In setting acceptable toxin levels in drinking water, officials could easily redefine today’s unacceptable as being acceptable.
Personally, I would prefer to brew my morning coffee with water that is completely toluene and naphthalene-free.
If this issue seems far removed from the Finger Lakes, consider that just across the state border to the south, hydrofracking operations in Pennsylvania produce millions of gallons of wastewater. That chemical-laced water is currently being trucked to Ohio for disposal in injection wells.
If the federal EPA and New Mexico agree on water quality standards for fracking wastewater to be used for domestic purposes, Keystone State energy companies could opt to scrub their toxic wastewater, too, saving millions of dollars annually in trucking costs.
It could keep those companies even more profitable and vibrant.
But if I’m offered a glass of water there?
Fitzgerald has worked at six newspapers as a writer and editor as well as a correspondent for two news services. He splits his time between Valois, NY and Pt. Richmond, CA. You can email him at Michael.Fitzgeraldfltcolumnist@gmail.com and visit his website at michaeljfitzgerald.blogspot.com.