Green groups warn of 'toxic' dumping with New Mexico's fracking wastewater law

FILE PHOTO: Louis Meeks, a farmer near Pavillion, Wyoming, fills a trough with contaminated water from his well on September 17, 2009. REUTERS/Jon Hurdle/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Environmental groups lambasted oil and gas industry regulators and officials in New Mexico on Friday during virtual public hearings on wastewater from petroleum extraction, with green activists saying the refuse should be safely disposed of and not repurposed for other uses like irrigating crops.

The state last year passed a law called the Produced Water Act, giving energy regulators the authority to develop rules on how the wastewater can be used outside the oil and gas industry, and state university researchers are examining whether the water – when treated – can be safe to use in agriculture.

The effort is seen as crucial to both the energy and agriculture industries in arid New Mexico, where drillers accessing rich petroleum deposits in the Permian Basin produce millions of gallons of wastewater as farmers and municipalities struggle with perennial water shortages.

“The Oil Conservation Division’s rules appear to set the stage for a more insidious plan to allow companies to dump their toxic waste into our environment,” a coalition of Western conservation and indigenous groups wrote in a letter to the agency ahead of the hearing, which began on Thursday.

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA) representative Michael Feldewert used his testimony at the hearing to call out environmentalists for “misrepresenting” what the rule would do. “It certainly has nothing to do with dumping produced water onto crops or state streams,” he said.

As unconventional drilling exploded over the past few years in New Mexico, so has the amount of produced water, the term used to describe wastewater from drilling. It is usually treated and reinjected underground to extract more oil.

The state government has teamed up with the oil industry to provide New Mexico State University a $100 million grant to study treatment and reuses for produced water, including in agriculture. In June, ExxonMobil signed an agreement to coordinate research with the university.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Aurora Ellis