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River Healers drone footage of fracking site in NM

Protect Greater Chaco: Drone surveillance of regional fracking sites in NM

The River Healers have droned multiple fracking sites in the Greater Chaco Area (New Mexico) impacted by explosions, fires, spills, and methane. See what they are finding. Hear their story.

 

By Tom Burkett – River Healer Spokesperson, New Mexico Watchdog

The Greater Chaco region is known to the Diné (Navajo) as Dinétah, the land of their ancestors. It contains countless sacred sites that date to the Anasazi and is home of the Bisti Badlands and Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a World Heritage Site. Currently WPX Energy has rights to lease about 100,000 acres of federal, state, and Navajo allottee lands in the oil rich San Juan Basin, which includes Greater Chaco.1 WPX Energy along with other fracking companies plan to continue establishing crude oil fracking wells on these sacred lands, although the Greater Chaco community has spoken out against fracking and continue to call for more safety and oversight from New Mexico state regulatory bodies such as the EMNRD Oil Conservation Division.

The River Healers pulled EMNRD records that show over 8,300 spills in New Mexico had been reported by the the fracking industry to EMNRD between 2011-2016 (map below). This is thousands more than reported by the Environmental Protection Agency. The records also showed how quickly reports of spills, fires, and explosions were processed by the EMNRD as ‘non-emergency’ and accepted industry reports that no groundwater had been contaminated.

River Healers map

Zoomed in view of the River Healers’ NM fracking spills map. Learn more

Daniel Tso, Member of the Navajo Nation and Elder of the Counselor Chapter, led us to fracking sites in Greater Chaco that had reported spills and fires. Daniel Tso is one of many Navajo Nation members working on the frontlines to protect Greater Chaco, their ancestral land, and their pastoral ways of life from the expanding fracking industry. Traveling in white trucks and cars we blended in with the oil and gas trucks that dot indigenous community roads and group around fracking pads on squares federally owned land. Years of watchdogging the fracking destruction on their sacred land was communicated through Tso’s eyes looking over the landscape for new fracking disruption and a calm voice,

… the hurt on the sacred landscapes; the beauty of the land is destroyed, this affects our people’s mental, spiritual, and emotional health.

At each site our eyes were scanning the fracking sites and terrain for drone flight patterns while the native elders were slowly scanning the ground for pottery shards and signs of their ancestors. Arroyos sweep around the fracking pads and display how quickly the area can flash flood from rain that gathers on the striated volcanic ash hills of the badlands.

Fracking Regulation in NM

The EMNRD Oil Conservation Division has only 12 inspectors that are in charge of overseeing over 50,000 wells scattered throughout New Mexico.2 Skepticism around EMNRD’s ability to regulate not only comes from a short staff being stretched across 121,598 square miles of New Mexico’s terrain, but thousands of active fracking sites continue to report spills, fires, and explosions every year.3 Even more problematic is that Ken McQueen, Cabinet Secretary of EMNRD formerly served as Vice President of WPX Energy.4 Ken McQueen managed WPX Energy’s assets in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Colorado, and in addition, part of Wyoming. New Mexico Governor, Susana Martinez’s appointment of McQueen severely compromises the state’s ability to impartially oversee WPX Energy and regulate the fracking industry. Governor Martinez has been called to clean up the EMNRD, and rid the regulatory body of cabinet members more interested in protecting the assets of WPX than the health and rights of New Mexicans. Tso remarks,

The sacrifices of indigenous communities continue for a society that thinks gasoline comes from a gas station. That thinks oil is a commodity that is unending resource. This is unfortunate, and ultimately compromises our physical health. Yet this doesn’t matter to the industry. They want every last drop of crude oil even if it is cost prohibitive.

The River Healers maintain that Governor Martinez is complicit in the exploitation of human water rights as long as the EMNRD remains a compromised and unreliable regulatory body.

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New Mexico governmental assimilation with the oil and gas industry is presented to the Greater Chaco indigenous communities in the form of 90,000-lb gross weight oilfield trucks. Western Refining started rolling out trucks with larger-than-life prints of state and county law enforcements officers and military personnel at the same time water protectors at Standing Rock were being arrested and assaulted by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department in North Dakota.5 The indigenous-led movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from desecrating sacred land and threatening rights to clean water has drawn greater resistance to oil and gas projects around the country.

Indigenous solidarity is felt in Greater Chaco, but Western Refining’s blatant propaganda campaign demonstrates how oil and gas corporations continue to threaten and silence the communities they extract oil from by displaying the paid power of state and federal law enforcement. The River Healers view this as a direct form of intimidation that aims to further a corporate ideology and remind native communities of the violence they experienced at the hand of the United States Federal Government in the past. The Western Refining campaign is a direct form of corporate-sponsored terrorism and should be grounds to ban their ability to use images of law enforcement officers to further their interests. Furthermore, the state should discontinue paying for officers to patrol facking roads and pads and instead use state funds to make state regulatory bodies work for the communities most impacted by the oil and gas industries.

What we are finding

Drone surveillance of fracking sites in Greater Chaco show how quickly the fracking industry has exploited a state government tied to the interests of a booming and unchecked resource extraction industry. In Greater Chaco this element of time is more deeply understood through the lens of the indigenous community.

Ultimately, the health of the fauna and flora are devastated. The adaptation of the delicate ecosystem is forever destroyed. Their recovery and healing will take years and years.

The Anasazi Kivas in Chaco Canyon took over 300 years to construct, while drill rigs such as Cyclone 32 take less than 10 days to drill 6,500 ft wells in the canyon plateau. We hiked 12 miles of the sacred Chaco Wash, pulled water samples, and saw the red palm of the Supernova Petrograph clinging to the understory of the canyon wall, clearly taking notice of what is happening above.

We deeply thank members of the Navajo Nation for inviting us into their lives, and our hearts stand with them in solidarity. Protect Greater Chaco! Dooda Fracking!


River Healers Site Videos

Site 1

Nageezi, NM
County: San Juan
Kimbeto Wash/Chaco River
GPS: 36°14’22.38”, -107°43’51.38”

Protect Greater Chaco : Site 1 from River Healers on Vimeo.

This particular site caught fire on June 11th, 2016 and was allowed to burn until July 14th. The fracking fire and contaminates spread to areas north and south of the fracking pad, burning Juniper trees within 200 feet of residential buildings. This fire is not the only documented case in the Greater Chaco Area where communities were disrupted and evacuated in the middle of the night. While community members remain concerned about their health, WPX reported that the incident was not an emergency and that no damage was caused to groundwater.

Site 2

Nageezi, NM
County: San Juan
Kimbeto Wash/Chaco River
GPS: 36°13’43.23″, -107°44’28.72″

Protect Greater Chaco : Site 2 from River Healers on Vimeo.

Drone surveys of this particular site show Cyclone 32, a 1500 Horsepower 755 ton drill rig manufactured in Wyoming. The drill rig is transported through Greater Chaco communities on small dusty single lane dirt roads used by the community members and school buses. The drilling is heard and seen moving from pad to pad. The rig is establishing multiple drill heads on pockets of land tucked along the Kimbeto Wash, a tributary to the Chaco River and sacred source of water security for members of the Greater Chaco Area in Nageezi, New Mexico.

Site 3

Nageezi, NM
County: San Juan
Kimbeto Wash/Chaco River
GPS: 36°13’27.51″, -107°45’3.24″

No video available

Site 4

Counselor, NM
County: Rio Arriba
Canada Larga River
GPS: 36°13’18.19″, -107°28’56.24″

Protect Greater Chaco : Site 4 from River Healers on Vimeo.

Drone surveys show Lybrook Elementary School only 1600ft from a WPX Energy fracking site. The crude oil tanks of the site can be seen from the classroom windows of the school. The elementary school was moved to this location in 2006 because it was right across the highway from a large and expanding natural gas plant and had to relocate elementary students to a safe location.

Although the WPX Energy site is established on federal land, this area of Counselor, New Mexico is referred to as ‘The Checkerboard’ because of the quadrants of federal land that break up tribal land. The 5 well heads are highlighted to show that these pockets of federal land are being fracked with a high concentration of fracking wells. By drilling multiple wells in one pad location fracking companies are able to quickly drain the plays of crude oil under the the Greater Chaco Area and avoid signing contracts with the native property owners that live and attend school in the area they are fracking.

Site 5

Counselor, NM
County: Sandoval
Chaco Wash/Chaco River
GPS: 36° 9’45.22″, -107°29’11.47″

Protect Greater Chaco : Site 5 from River Healers on Vimeo.

Drone surveys show crude oil being fracked within 840 ft of an indigenous community in Sandoval County, NM (Greater Chaco). The fracking site is located in the path of the community water supply, which had to be routed around the wellhead and crude tanks. The underground water line remains only 110 ft from active fracking activity.

Particular communities in Greater Chaco are dependent upon pastoral industry and the health of their livestock. Horses owned by the indigenous community are seen grazing on open and unprotected fracking pads. Many of these fracking pads have recorded spills of either fracking fluid, wastewater, or crude oil and pose health risks to the livestock grazing on potentially contaminated grasses and wastewater.

A Western Refining (WPX) crude truck can be seen driving down the community road. These dirt roads were designed to support local community traffic and school buses but are now heavily used by the fracking industry. 90,000-lb gross weight oilfield trucks haul the volatile crude oil through pastoral lands, endangering livestock and community members. Fracking companies continue to level dirt roads to accommodate the weight of their crude trucks. The practice cuts roads deep into the landscape. Roads in Greater Chaco now resemble trenches and make travel dangerous, block scenic views of ancestral land, and hinder the ability to monitor livestock and fracking development.

Site 6

Nageezi, NM
County: San Juan
Kimbeto Wash/Chaco River
GPS: 36°15’20.46”, -107°41’43.14”

Protect Greater Chaco : Site 6 from River Healers on Vimeo.

Drone surveys show 3 well heads, crude tanks, and compressors north of Hwy 550 in Nageezi, NM. The location is of importance because it shows how flaring is used to burn off methane caused by fracking and the transportation processes of crude oil. The River Healers droned this site when workers were not present and the flare tower was turned off for safety concerns, but the flame can usually be seen all the way from Hwy 550 tucked into the distinct hills of the Bisti Badlands. Such methane hotspots are of concern because methane causes severe health risks for individuals living near crude oil facilities. NASA has identified two large methane gas clouds in new Mexico. The methane gas is concentrated above fracking occurring in the San Juan Basin and Permian Basin and disproportionately affects the air quality of Greater Chaco, Four Corners Region, Farmington, and South East region of New Mexico.

Two unlined wastewater pits can be seen on the edge of the fracking pad near the well heads and compressors. Erosion caused by water drainage can be seen leading from the well heads and compressor areas directly to the wastewater pits. Drainages can also be seen coming directly out of the waste water pits and going into the Upper Kimbeto Wash, a tributary of the Chaco River. It is illegal for fracking companies to keep fracking wastewater in unlined pits in the state of New Mexico. The River Healers reported this possible water violation to the EMNRD Oil Conservation Division (a state regulatory body for the fracking industry). EMNRD replied that WPX Energy maintains that the wastewater is caused by stormwater runoff and contains no fracking contaminates. This is the first time we have heard of the fracking industry creating stormwater runoff pits and find the practice to be unusual. Further skepticism that these runoff pits are not contaminated comes from research about the site. In June of 2016, WPX Energy reported a spill of 600 gallons of crude oil at this site because of a fire. WPX maintains that no groundwater was impacted and marked the incident as not an emergency.


References

  1. WPX Adds Accreage in Gallup Oil Play, press release
  2. NM Oil and Gas Enforcement Inspections, Earthworks
  3. New Mexico Geologic Mapping Program, NM Bureau of Geology and Mineral resources
  4. New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department – Cabinet Secretary Ken McQueen
  5. Western Refining, Community Supporting Law Enforcement

About River Healers: New Mexico Chapter

newmexicoriverhealers.com

The River Healers organize anonymous watchdog operations and tactical campaigns to protect water. The artist collective is engaged in direct action through analyzing, exposing, and bringing down systematic abuses of water rights. The River Healers work to accelerate theories of water democracy, decentralize aesthetics of environmentalism, and expose corporate sponsored water terrorism. ‘Water is a commons – No one has the right to destroy’

Oil and gas production on public lands

Interactive maps show nearness of oil and gas wells to communities in 5 states

As an American, you are part owner of 640 million acres of our nation’s shared public lands managed by the federal government. And chances are, you’ve enjoyed a few of these lands on family picnics, weekend hikes or summer camping trips. But did you know that some of your lands may also be leading to toxic air pollution and poor health for you or your neighbors, especially in 5 western states that have high oil and gas drilling activity?

A set of new interactive maps created by FracTracker, The Wilderness Society, and partner groups show the threatened populations who live within a half mile of  federal oil and gas wells – people who may be breathing in toxic pollution on a regular basis.

Altogether, air pollution from oil and gas development on public lands threatens at least 73,900 people in the 5 western states we examined. The states, all of which are heavy oil and gas leasing areas, include ColoradoNew MexicoNorth DakotaUtah and Wyoming.

Close up of threat map in Colorado

Figure 1. Close up of threat map in Colorado

In each state, the data show populations living near heavy concentrations of wells. For example just northeast of Denver, Colorado, in the heavily populated Weld County, at least 11,000 people are threatened by oil and gas development on public lands (Figure 1).

Western cities, like Farmington, New Mexico; Gillette, Wyoming; and Grand Junction, Colorado are at highest risk of exposure from air pollution. In New Mexico, especially, concentrated oil and gas activity disproportionately affects the disadvantaged and minorities. Many wells can be found near population centers, neighborhoods and even schools.

Colorado: Wells concentrated on Western Slope, Front Range

Note: The threatened population in states are a conservative estimate. It is likely that the numbers affected by air pollution are higher.

In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the nation to try to curb methane pollution from oil and gas operations through comprehensive regulations that included inspections of oil and gas operations and an upgrade in oil and gas infrastructure technology. Colorado’s new regulations are already showing both environmental and financial benefits.

But nearly 16,000 people – the majority living in the northwestern and northeastern part of the state – are still threatened by pollution from oil and gas on public lands.

Many of the people whose health is endangered from pollution are concentrated in the fossil-fuel rich area of the Western Slope, near Grand Junction. In that area, three counties make up 65% of the total area in Colorado threatened by oil and gas development.

In Weld County, just northeast of Denver, more than 11,000 residents are threatened by air pollution from oil and gas production on federal lands. But what’s even more alarming is that five schools are within a half mile radius of wells, putting children at risk on a daily basis of breathing in toxins that are known to increase asthma attacks. Recent studies have shown children miss 500,000 days of school nationally each year due to smog related to oil and gas production.

State regulations in Colorado have helped improve air quality, reduce methane emissions and promote worker care and safety in the past two years, but federal regulations expected by the end of 2016 will have a broader impact by regulating pollution from all states.

New Mexico: Pollution seen from space threatens 50,000 people

With more than 30,000 wells covering 4.6 million acres, New Mexico is one of the top states for oil and gas wells on public lands. Emissions from oil and gas infrastructure in the Four Corners region are so great, they have formed a methane hot spot that has been extensively studied by NASA and is clearly visible from space.

Nearly 50,000 people in northwestern New Mexico – 40% of the population in San Juan County – live within a half mile of a well. 

Dangerous emissions from those wells in San Juan County disproportionately affect minorities and disadvantaged populations, with about 20% Hispanic, almost 40% Native American, and over 20% living in poverty.

Another hot spot of oil and activity is in southeastern New Mexico stretching from the lands surrounding Roswell to the southern border with Texas. Wells in this region also cover the lands outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, potentially affecting the air quality and visibility for park visitors. Although less densely populated, another 4,000 people in two counties – with around 50% of the population Hispanic – are threatened by toxic air pollution.

Wyoming: Oil and gas emissions add to coal mining pollution

Pollution from oil and gas development in Wyoming, which has about as many wells as New Mexico, is focused in the Powder River Basin. This region in the northeast of the state provides 40% of the coal produced in the United States.

Oil and gas pollution threatens approximately 4,000 people in this region where scarred landscapes and polluted waterways are also prevalent from coal mining. 

With the Obama administration’s current pause on federal coal leasing and a review of the federal coal program underway, stopping pollution from oil and gas on public lands in Wyoming would be a major step in achieving climate goals and preserving the health of local communities.

Utah: Air quality far below federal standards

Utah has almost 9,000 active wells on public lands. Oil and gas activity in Utah has created air quality below federal standards in one-third of Utah’s counties, heightening the risk of asthma and respiratory illnesses. Especially in the Uintah Basin in northeastern Utah – where the majority of oil and development occurs – a 2014 NOAA-led study found oil and gas activity can lead to high levels of ozone in the wintertime that exceed federal standards.

North Dakota: Dark skies threatened by oil and gas activity

The geology of western North Dakota includes the Bakken Formation, one of the largest deposits of oil and gas in the United States. As a result, high oil and gas production occurs on both private and public lands in the western part of the state.

Nearly 650 wells on public lands are clustered together here, directly impacting popular recreational lands like Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The 70,000-plus-acre park – named after our president who first visited in 1883 and fell in love with the incredible western landscape – is completely surrounded by high oil and gas activity. Although drilling is not allowed in the park, nearby private and public lands are filled with active wells, producing pollution, traffic and noise that can be experienced from the park. Due to its remote location, the park is known for its incredible night sky, but oil and gas development increases air and light pollution, threatening visibility of the Milky Way and other astronomical wonders.

You own public lands, but they may be hurting you

Pollution from oil and gas wells on public lands is only a part of a larger problem. Toxic emissions from oil and gas development on both public and private lands threaten 12.4 million people living within a half mile of wells, according to an oil and gas threat map created by FracTracker for a project by Earthworks and the Clean Air Task Force.

Now that we can see how many thousands of people are threatened by harmful emissions from our public lands, it is more important than ever that we finalize strong federal regulations that will help curb the main pollutant of natural gas – methane – from being leaked, vented, and flared from oil and gas infrastructure on public lands.

Federal oil and gas wells in western states produce unseen pollution that threatens populations at least a half mile away. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

Federal oil and gas wells in western states produce unseen pollution that threatens populations at least a half mile away. Photo: WildEarth Guardians, flickr.

We need to clean up our air now

With U.S. public lands accounting for 1/5 of the greenhouse gas footprint in the United States, we need better regulations to reduce polluting methane emissions from the 96,000 active oil and gas wells on public lands.

Right now, the Bureau of Land Management is finalizing federal regulations that are expected by the end of 2016. These regulations are expected to curb emissions from existing sources – wells already in production – that are a significant source of methane pollution on public lands. This is crucial, since by 2018, it is estimated that nearly 90% of methane emissions will come from sources that existed in 2011.

Federal regulations by the BLM should also help decrease the risk to communities living near oil and gas wells and helping cut methane emissions by 40 to 45% by 2025 to meet climate change reduction goals.

Final regulations from the Bureau of Land Management will also add to other regulations from the EPA and guidance from the Obama administration to modernize energy development on public lands for the benefit of the American people, landscapes and the climate. In the face of a changing climate, we need to continue to monitor fossil fuel development on public lands and continue to push the government towards better protections for land, air, wildlife and local communities.


By The Wilderness Society – The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 700,000 members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands.

Screenshot from Vulnerable Populations Map

Sensitive Receptors near Fracked Oil & Gas Wells

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Cover of Dangerous and Close report. Click to view report

FracTracker Alliance has been working with the Frontier Group and Environment America on a nationwide assessment of “fracked” oil and gas wells. The report is titled Dangerous and Close, Fracking Puts the Nation’s Most Vulnerable People at Risk. The assessment analyzed the locations of fracked wells and identified where the fracking has occurred near locations where sensitive populations are commonly located. These sensitive sites include schools and daycare facilities because they house children, hospitals because the sick are not able to fight off pollution as effectively, and nursing homes where the elderly need and deserve clean environments so that they can be healthy, as well. The analysis used data on fracked wells from regulatory agencies and FracFocus in nine states. Maps of these nine states, as well as a full national map are shown below.

No one deserves to suffer the environmental degradation that can accompany oil and gas development – particularly “fracking” – in their neighborhoods. Fracked oil and gas wells are shown to have contaminated drinking water, degrade air quality, and sicken both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Additionally, everybody responds differently to environmental pollutants, and some people are much more sensitive than others. In fact, certain sects of the population are known to be more sensitive in general, and exposure to pollution is much more dangerous for them. These communities and populations need to be protected from the burdens of industries, such as fracking for oil and gas, that have a negative effect on their environment. Commonly identified sensitive groups or “receptors” include children, the immuno-compromised and ill, and the elderly.  These groups are the focus of this new research.

 

National Map

National interactive map of sensitive receptors near fracked wells


View Map Fullscreen | How Our Maps Work

State-By-State Maps in Dangerous and Close Report

Click to view interactive maps associated with each state

Over 1.1 Million Active Oil and Gas Wells in the US

Many people ask us how many wells have been hydraulically fractured in the United States.  It is an excellent question, but not one that is easily answered; most states don’t release data on well stimulation activities.  Also, since the data are released by state regulatory agencies, it is necessary to obtain data from each state that has oil and gas data to even begin the conversation.  We’ve finally had a chance to complete that task, and have been able to aggregate the following totals:

Oil and gas summary data of drilled wells in the United States.

Oil and gas summary data of drilled wells in the United States.

 

While data on hydraulically fractured wells is rarely made available, the slant of the wells are often made accessible.  The well types are as follows:

  • Directional:  Directional wells are those where the top and the bottom of the holes do not line up vertically.  In some cases, the deviation is fairly slight.  These are also known as deviated or slant wells.
  • Horizontal:  Horizontal wells are directional wells, where the well bore makes something of an “L” shape.  States may have their own definition for horizontal wells.  In Alaska, these wells are defined as those deviating at least 80° from vertical.  Currently, operators are able to drill horizontally for several miles.
  • Directional or Horizontal:  These wells are known to be directional, but whether they are classified as horizontal or not could not be determined from the available data.  In many cases, the directionality was determined by the presence of directional sidetrack codes in the well’s API number.
  • Vertical:  Wells in which the top hole and bottom hole locations are in alignment.  States may have differing tolerances for what constitutes a vertical well, as opposed to directional.
  • Hydraulically Fractured:  As each state releases data differently, it wasn’t always possible to get consistent data.  These wells are known to be hydraulically fractured, but the slant of the well is unknown.
  • Not Fractured:  These wells have not been hydraulically fractured, and the slant of the well is unknown.
  • Unknown:  Nothing is known about the slant, stimulation, or target formation of the well in question.
  • Unknown (Shale Formation):  Nothing is known about the slant or stimulation of the wells in question; however, it is known that the target formation is a major shale play.  Therefore, it is probable that the well has been hydraulically fractured, with a strong possibility of being drilled horizontally.

Wells that have been hydraulically fractured might appear in any of the eight categories, with the obvious exception of “Not Fractured.”  Categories that are very likely to be fractured include, “Horizontal”, “Hydraulically Fractured”, and “Unknown (Shale Formation),” the total of which is about 32,000 wells.  However, that number doesn’t include any wells from Texas or Colorado, where we know thousands wells have been drilled into major shale formations, but the data had to be placed into categories that were more vague.

Oil and gas wells in the United States, as of February 2014. Location data were not available for Maryland (n=104), North Carolina (n=2), and Texas (n=303,909).  To access the legend and other map tools, click the expanding arrows icon in the top-right corner.

The standard that we attempted to reach for all of the well totals was for wells that have been drilled but have not yet been plugged, which is a broad spectrum of the well’s life-cycle.  In some cases, decisions had to be made in terms of which wells to include, due to imperfect metadata.

No location data were available for Maryland, North Carolina, or Texas.  The first two have very few wells, and officials in Maryland said that they expect to have the data available within about a month.  Texas location data is available for purchase, however such data cannot be redistributed, so it was not included on the map.

It should not be assumed that all of the wells that are shown in  the map above the shale plays and shale basin layers are actually drilled into shale.  In many cases, however, shale is considered a source rock, where hydrocarbons are developed, before the oil and gas products migrate upward into shallower, more conventional formations.

The raw data oil and gas data is available for download on our site in shapefile format.

 

NM Shale Map Shows Contamination Events

Recently, the FracTracker Alliance has gotten several requests from residents of New Mexico for maps showing the large scale drilling operations in that state.  As we began to look around for data sources, we encountered an interesting document from 2008:

This 2008 document from the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division shows instances of ground water contamination by oil and gas pits in the state.

This 2008 document from the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division shows instances of ground water contamination by oil and gas pits in the state.

There isn’t much description on the document or the New Mexcio Oil Conservation Division (NMOCD) page that links to it, however, the subject matter is straightforward enough.  Altogether, there are 369 instances of ground water contamination documented by a New Mexico governmental agency from dozens of drilling operators throughout the Land of Enchantment.

Ground Water Contamination Controversy

Since the title of document indicates that the agents causing contamination are “pit substances”, this does not technically indicate that hydraulic fracturing is to blame.  This is largely a matter of definition, but it is an important one to understand, because the word “fracking” means something different to industry insiders than it does to the general public, and the issue of ground water contamination is a point of considerable debate.

Technically speaking,  hydraulic fracturing only refers to one stage of the well completion process, in which water, sand, and chemicals are injected into the oil or gas well, and pressurized to break up the carbon-rich rock formation to allow the desired product to flow better.Most people (and many media outlets) consider “fracking” to be the entire production process for wells that require such treatment, from the development of the several acre well pad, through the drilling, the completion, flaring, waste disposal, and integration of the product to pipelines.  (It is due to these competing definitions that the FracTracker Alliance goes out of our way to avoid the term “fracking”.)

All of this has lead to some carefully worded statements that seem to exhonerate hydraulic fracturing, despite suspected contamination events reported in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and elsewhere.  Of course, from the perspective of residents relying on a contaminated aquifer, it hardly matters whether the water was contaminated by hydraulic fracturing, leeching from the associated pits, problems with well casing or cement, or re-pressurized abandoned wells.  A fouled aquifer is a fouled aquifer.

This document does not specify what was contained in the pits, only that they are contamination events.  Therefore, we do not know what stage of the process the contaminant came from, only that it was believed by the state of New Mexico to have originated from a pit, and not the well bore itself.

Notes About Location Information

It is important to note that the location information is not exact, but are generally within 0.72 miles of the specified location.  The reason for this is that the location information was provided using the Public Land Survey System (PLSS).  The brainchild of Thomas Jefferson, the PLSS was the method used to grid out the western frontier, and it is still used as a legal land description in many western states.  Essentially, the land was divided into townships that were six miles by six miles, which was then broken into 36 sections, each of which is one square mile.  FracTracker has calculated the centroid of each section, which could be up to 0.71 miles from the corner of the same section if the shape is perfectly square.

The PLSS system was used to grid out most of New Mexico, but some portions of the state had already been well defined by Spanish and Mexcian land grants.  Aside from being a fascinating historical anecdote, it does have an effect on the mapping of these pits.  In the image of the table above, note that the “Florance Z 40” well does not have any values in the location column.  As a result, we were not able to map this pit.  Altogether, 11 of the 369 pits identified as causing groundwater contamination could not be mapped.


New Mexico Shale Viewer. You can zoom and click on map icons in this window for more information. For full access to map controls, including layer descriptions, please click the expanding arrows icon in the top right portion of the map.