Oilfield wastewater used to grow hemp? New Mexico working toward alternatives to disposal 

Carlsbad Current-Argus • By Adrian Hedden

A hemp field amid the oil derricks and pump jacks near the Eddy-Lea county line could soon be watered using a previously unusable source of water brought to the surface with fossil fuels.

The wastewater, known as produced water by the industry, is pumped up with crude oil and natural gas and typically sent back underground via disposal injection wells.

Some of it is also treated and reused for subsequent drilling and well completions, a means of lowering an operator’s use of scarce freshwater in the deserts of the Permian Basin.

But it could also represent a new source of water for increasingly arid New Mexico, and the Produced Water Research Consortium – a joint venture between the New Mexico Environment Department and New Mexico State University – was formed in 2019 to study new technologies that could see the water used outside of fossil fuel operations.

It was created in response to the Produced Water Act passed in 2019, delegating authority to NMED to regulate produced water use outside of the industry, though no such use yet exists.

Inside the industry, produced water management is overseen by the Oil Conservation Division of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

At its mid-year meeting Tuesday, the Consortium discussed several pilot projects now seeking permitting to be treating produced water and then attempting to reuse it in agriculture.

Infinity Water Solutions was hoping to use the water in an area near the Eddy-Lea county-line to water a hemp field using treated produced water from its 3 million barrels of storage capacity nearby.

That project was awaiting permitting from NMED to begin the study. Hemp was used as it is resistant to pests and other pathogens but is able to indicate the presence of metals, said Zacariah Hildenbrand, Infinity Chief Scientific Officer.

“The terminal goal is to show folks this can be used in a large-scale agricultural setting,” he said. “They’re begging for a better water source, and we’re working to provide that for them.”

Ashley Whitehead with Infinity said finding solutions for the water is crucial to future of New Mexico’s economy and its water security, arguing better management of produced water creates environmental benefits by using less freshwater, reducing truck traffic and seismicity induced by disposal injection

“We are really focused on the economic diversity of New Mexico,” she said. “We have got to figure out what to do with all this water. We would argue its economic security really depends on this blue industry.”

Consortium Director Mike Hightower said as oil and gas was recently credited for about half of the State of New Mexico’s revenue in the last fiscal year, it was clear that extraction operations could continue to rise in the state.

That will mean even more water produced, and he argued disposal will struggle to keep up with the water’s generation.

He estimated the Permian Basin, a booming oil and gas region in southeast New Mexico and West Texas, produced about 155,000-acre feet (AF) of produced water a year – about 48.8 billion gallons.

“The trends in production that we’re seeing for oil and gas and produced water continues to increase,” Hightower said. “From a state perspective, from an economic perspective, being able to rely on this produced water is important for the long-term economy of the state. We want to treat that water for beneficial use outside of oil and gas.”

Doing this meant New Mexico studying existing technologies and others being developed, hoping to evaluate the toxicology of the treated produced water and applicability to other uses.

About six to eight different water treatment technologies were being evaluated, Hightower said, and the consortium hoped to begin considering applications from companies looking to use their projects by the end of next year.

The Legislature appropriated $5 million to NMED to start a rule making for the use of such technology, and another $30 million for the State Engineer to start characterizing brackish oilfield water for treatment, and Hightower said the Consortium’s role was to develop performance data from the technology to aid in decision-making.

“There is interest in the state of New Mexico moving forward. We’re working with the NMED to fulfill our duty,” he said. “In the Permian Basin, production is expected to increase. With that produced water will increase.

“Our big attempt this year is to try and collect data from 10 different technologies so we can have enough performance data for the state of New Mexico to begin to make decisions.”

Read the complete article on Carlsbad Current-Argus here.