There’s a new boom in the Permian Basin — wastewater

As freshwater supplies shrink, interest in recycling water leftover from fracking is growing. Others aren’t so sure.

This story was originally published by Searchlight New Mexico and is reproduced here with permission. 

In the Permian Basin, now the most prolific oil field in the world, hundreds of miles of plastic pipelines snake along dirt roads, drilling pads and the edges of farm fields. But they are not carrying oil. Instead, they’re transporting an equally precious commodity in this arid region straddling the New Mexico-Texas border: water. 

“Pipelines are going in everywhere,” said Jim Davis as he drove a camouflage-hued, four-wheeled ATV across his land toward the water station he owns. Selling the water beneath his property to oil and gas companies has given Davis and his wife, who has cancer, a financial security that eluded them for most of their lives. Every day, a steady stream of water trucks flows in and out of his station south of Carlsbad, filling up on his high-quality freshwater — an essential ingredient for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short. 

Davis, whose property has been in his family since 1953, says he’s never seen so much water moving around the basin. “There’s no way you can even keep up with what’s going on,” he said.


Jim Davis drives across his property, which his family has owned since 1953. Davis worked in the oil and gas industry for decades, first in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay and then at home in the Permian Basin, before starting his own business selling freshwater to oil and gas companies.
Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

Without water, there would be no oil and gas boom. Fracking, the most common drilling method in the basin, pumps massive amounts of freshwater — along with sand and chemicals — into shale formations as deep as 10,000 feet, or nearly two miles underground. The fluid cracks open the rock, releasing the oil trapped inside. When the oil gushes to the surface, some of the water and chemicals come up too, along with briny water that occurs naturally in the rock layers — the vestige of an ancient sea. 

For every barrel of oil produced in the Permian, about four barrels of this “produced water” come out of the earth along with it. In 2018 alone, New Mexico’s share of the Permian Basin generated 42 billion gallons of oil and gas wastewater, according to the New Mexico Environment Department. 

For years, companies simply dumped the contaminated wastewater into disposal wells. Now, there’s keen interest in reusing that produced water for drilling — and even for other, more controversial purposes.

Amid increasingly scarce freshwater supplies, wastewater recycling is increasingly  embraced by everyone from farmers and oil and gas operators to state officials, who see it as a tantalizing solution to one of the arid state’s most intractable problems. With new laws on the books, the stars are aligned for a produced-water recycling boom that could rival the basin’s oil and gas boom, analysts say. 

Supporters envision a day when treatment technologies are advanced enough to make produced water safe for irrigation — maybe even safe enough to drink from the tap. 

But others contend that produced water is too contaminated to ever be anything but waste.

“Even if we could treat produced water to drinking-water standards, why would we?” asked Rebecca Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner for WildEarth Guardians, a Santa Fe-based environmental group. “Why would the poorest state in the nation invest tremendous amounts of resources into finding a mechanism to turn one of the most toxic substances out there into potable water?”

A produced water storage pond south of Malaga. After the water has been treated to remove sand, bacteria and some salts, it is held here for reuse.
Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

Abundant oil, scarce water

As divided as New Mexicans might be on the prospect of reusing produced water beyond the oil fields, they agree on two things: Southeastern New Mexico is headed for a water crisis. And oil and gas production is resulting in increasingly prodigious volumes of produced water. 

In five years, the Permian is forecast to generate 32 million barrels of produced water per day, up from four million a day currently. By 2030, that number could rise to 38 million barrels daily, analysts say. And it will be increasingly difficult to dispose of the wastewater. Industry analysts say the basin will eventually run out of suitable places to drill disposal wells — another incentive for oil and gas operators to recycle.

At the same time, the constant flow of freshwater needed for fracking is ever harder to come by in this parched region, which lies in the Chihuahuan Desert and receives only about 13 inches of precipitation a year. 

“Why would the poorest state in the nation invest tremendous amounts of resources into finding a mechanism to turn one of the most toxic substances out there into potable water?”

More than 95% of oil and gas leases issued on federal lands in New Mexico since 2017 were in areas of “extremely high” water stress, a 2019 report by the Center for American Progress found. 

Climate change will further stress water supplies: New Mexico is the second-fastest warming state in the country, and droughts like the one that desiccated rivers in 2018 are expected to become more frequent and severe. 

Drilling a single well in the Permian Basin required more than 11 million gallons of water per day in 2016, enough to fill 17 Olympic size swimming pools, up from 1.3 million gallons in 2011 a 770% increase, according to a 2018 study by Duke University researchers.  As the easier-to-reach oil deposits have been tapped out, companies have had to drill ever-longer wells — and the longer the well, the more water needed to force out the hydrocarbons.

A driver tops off a load on a “bobtail” truck — a small water hauler that delivers freshwater for showers at well sites and for domestic use at the makeshift “man camps” that house many of the Permian’s workers.
Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

New law, new controversies

Concerned by the rising imbalance between supply and demand, New Mexico legislators last year passed the Produced Water Act, which went into effect in July 2019. The law — crafted in part with the help of oil industry officials — sweeps away many of the obstacles to recycling produced water, which has been allowed in the state since 2015 but hindered by liability and water ownership issues. The law also directs the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to develop regulations for the treatment and reuse of produced water outside of the oil and gas industry, including its potential use for such things as irrigation or to supplement stream flows. 

As the state moves to increase regulation of produced water, researchers are stepping up efforts to find better ways to clean it. In September, at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, NMED Secretary James Kenney announced a new research consortium to turbocharge the development of cost-effective produced-water recycling technologies.

Some residents and environmental advocates say fracking wastewater will never be safe enough to use beyond the oil patch. Produced water is not only contaminated with salts; it also contains bits of crude oil, naturally occurring heavy metals and radioactive materials, and trace amounts of fracking chemicals — the identities of which companies do not have to disclose to the public, aside from a few exceptions, because the information is considered proprietary. 

To many, however, the state’s produced-water recycling push is a win-win: freeing up the water for reuse will reduce demand for freshwater while boosting economic development and creating jobs. 

To many, the state’s produced-water recycling push is a win-win: freeing up the water for reuse will reduce demand for freshwater while boosting economic development and creating jobs.

The legislation has already helped attract new interest from produced water recycling companies, said Jennifer Bradfute, an attorney with Marathon Oil, which helped write the Produced Water Act. “It's easier now because of the certainty created by the law,” she said. At least five new large-scale water recycling plants are scheduled to come online in the next two years, adding to the 90 produced water recycling facilities, some of them small mobile units, which have sprung up in the Permian since 2015.

The sign next to Jim Davis’s water station near Malaga. The storage tanks that feed the station stand in the distance.
Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

Reuse “will have to happen”

The recycling process starts by trucking or piping wastewater to a facility like the Lobo Ranch Produced Water Recycling and Blending Center, about 15 miles south of Carlsbad and in close proximity to hundreds of wells. The water — which is saltier than ocean water — is treated to remove sand, bacteria and some of the salts, which can interfere with the fracking process. The water is then stored and eventually delivered to a fracking site.

Demand for recycled water is growing. Lobo Ranch, owned by Houston-based Solaris Water Midstream, can process 80,000 barrels of recycled water a day and has 20 industry customers. One customer alone purchased 16 million barrels last year, according to the company. Another Solaris plant is nearing completion in neighboring Lea County.

Only about 10% of produced water is recycled today, said Adrienne Sandoval, director of New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division. An estimated 60% is still disposed of in injection wells, she said. The rest is used for other oil field purposes.

But as new recycling facilities come online and costs decrease, the popularity of recycled water is expected to increase considerably. Today, it costs 75 cents to $1.25 a barrel — already slightly cheaper than freshwater in some cases — and the rising cost of freshwater and disposal will only make it more attractive, said Kelly Bennett, president of  the Denver-based water resources research firm B3.

“When you think about reuse and recycle, it will have to happen, because of just the sheer volume of water coming out of the ground,” Bennett added. 

Thirsty crops

Some farmers and ranchers in the region are eager to put all that water to use. 

Brent Van Dyke of the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts, a statewide coalition of soil and water conservation districts, said the produced water generated in the Hobbs area, where he lives, would ease pressure on the overtaxed Ogallala aquifer, while allowing farmers to grow more crops. 

“If we could just convert that produced water to an agricultural water standard, we can create new fields of alfalfa and cows,” Van Dyke said during a produced water meeting last fall.

Before those visions of new farm fields become reality, scientists and regulators have a lot of work to do. While treatments have been studied for years, no cost-effective technologies have been discovered that can clean produced water to a standard sufficient for agriculture — or to augment municipal water supplies and river flows.

Salt and secrets

The salinity of Permian wastewater is one of the biggest barriers, said Pei Xu, a civil engineering professor at New Mexico State University who has worked to develop water treatment technologies for more than a decade. But she is optimistic that cost-effective technologies will be found. One day, Pei said, “this water will present a tremendous opportunity to augment regional water supplies.”  

Researchers  have to figure out how to remove the toxic substances in produced water, such as benzene and iron. But first, they’ll have to pierce the veil of secrecy around its contents. Each oil and gas operator uses a different fracking cocktail, whose ingredients are kept under wraps. If researchers and NMED don’t know what chemicals are in fracking water, they won’t be able to determine how to remove them and set safety standards.  

“It’s essential that as regulators we know what’s in the water,” said Rebecca Roose, director of NMED’s Water Protection Division. To that end, the agency plans to start crafting a rule this year that will facilitate the disclosure of the chemicals. “It would be disclosed and held by us as confidential, allowing us as regulators to get the information we need.” 

José, who drives a water truck for one of several companies that rely on Davis’s water station, enters his order at a payment booth. To stop water theft, Davis installed a custom-made payment system that requires customers to swipe a card before they can fill up.
Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

A commodity for life

Jim Davis, for his part, sees little threat to his freshwater enterprise. Even recycled wastewater needs to be diluted with freshwater to meet the quality required for fracking, he noted. His water will always be in demand.

As he nears his water station, he rearview mirror of his ATV reflects a pair of garage-sized water tanks where groundwater from the four wells he drilled for his business is stored. His business sells 3,000 to 10,000 barrels a day.

Like many who are employed either directly or indirectly by the oil and gas industry, Davis holds complicated views on its prolific water use. On one hand, he worries about how much the industry’s water demand has increased since he began selling water in 2004, at the dawn of the fracking boom.

On the other hand, selling water is a lifeline. 

“For the first time in my life, I’m debt-free,” Davis said as he watched another driver pull up and start to fill his water tank. “Never, growing up here, would I have believed what’s going on.”

April Reese has covered the environment and science in the Southwest for 12 years. Before joining the Searchlight New Mexico staff in April 2019, she freelanced for various magazines and news outlets, including Popular Science, Outside, The Guardian, Scientific American, Science Magazine, Nature, and bioGraphicEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.