Oil and gas companies need water to drill and produce, but State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn has taken action to cut back usage of fresh water from the Ogallala aquifer.
That aquifer is the source of drinking water serving Hobbs and other cities in southeastern New Mexico.
In a letter distributed late last month, Dunn announced his decision to stop issuing new or renewal easements that “involve the use of fresh water from the Ogallala aquifer for oil and gas production and related activities,” effective July 1.
Although generally agreeing with the intent to conserve potable water, reactions were mixed.
Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, co-owner of Lynx Petroleum, said he plans to discuss the issue with Dunn.
“The oil and gas industry is extremely important to the southeast New Mexico economy, and it should have some access to fresh water resources when nothing else is available,” Scott told the News-Sun.
On reducing the use of fresh water, he added, “The industry is moving in that direction. We are trying to reuse and recycle that water wherever it is practical and appropriate. That’s already happening.”
New Mexico Oil and Gas Association executive director Ryan Flynn also referred to the industry’s efforts to reduce fresh water usage.
“New Mexico oil and natural gas operators share the commissioner’s commitment to conserving water, which is why this industry is leading the way in developing innovative solutions like water recycling systems to maximize water resources,” he said.
“Across New Mexico, oil and natural gas production uses less than one percent of available water, while the vast majority – more than 80 percent – goes to irrigated agriculture,” Flynn continued. “It’s our hope the commissioner is working closely on this important issue with the appropriate stakeholders, beginning with State Engineer Tom Blaine, who is the state’s top water official and has been heavily engaged on addressing this complex issue for years.”
Eunice Mayor Matt White, while agreeing in principle with Dunn’s decision, fears the sudden change could be harmful to his city.
“Related activities is everything in town. Everything in town is oil related,” he said. “I agree in principle with what he’s trying to do. We need to save our fresh water. But do I run every business out of town? Do we go broke? I don’t know.”
He said he is looking forward to meeting with representatives of the State Land Office to iron out the concerns.
On the other hand, Jal City Manager Bob Gallagher strongly approved Dunn’s action.
“I think it was a great decision. I think the decision was based on sound science and common sense,” Gallagher said. “From my experience, as the (former) president and CEO of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, I understand and appreciate the importance of the industry but the industry can use other available water to perform their tasks in the field. Utilizing fresh water when you have the ability to use non-potable water is not being a good steward of our natural resources.”
Dunn’s letter made the point that the state land commissioner’s duty is to manage state trust lands in a manner that maximizes revenue while protecting the land for future generations.
“The use of fresh water from aquifers under state trust land for resource extraction activities, when poorer quality water from a deeper or shallower aquifer is reasonably available, is not generally in the best interests of the trust,” Dunn said in his letter. “Such uses will reduce the availability of fresh water from a finite and declining resource, and will potentially limit the highest and best use of state trust land, which is not in the public interest or to the benefit of State Land Office beneficiaries.”
“The rapid rate of depletion of the Ogallala aquifer and lack of alternative sources of fresh water in the region threaten to diminish the value of state trust lands and negatively impact state trust beneficiaries,” Dunn added.
Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb said he asked industry leaders for information, after which he will be able to speak with Dunn when the commissioner visits Hobbs later this month.
“I’m going to let the experts on the production side of the industry give me the information to see what the fiscal impact will have on them and what fiscal impact it could have on our community,” he said. “With those facts, I will engage Mr. Dunn when I see him here.”
Dunn is scheduled to speak at the EnergyPlex Conference set for June 27-28, but may be in town earlier, according to Cobb.
Curtis Wynne may be contacted at 575-391-5436 or firstname.lastname@example.org.