When I fly across country I try to get a window seat so I can get a bird’s eye view of America. In the past 30 years that view has changed. Vast landscapes, once agricultural land, public land or neighborhoods, have been transformed into industrial zones for oil and gas production. For as far as the eye can see, large portions of Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and other states, are now industrial grids of well pads, pipeline corridors, compressor stations and roads. Sometimes it’s hard to see the homes, schools, farms, ranches, and in my part of the world, the Navajo Chapter Houses, for the oil and gas infrastructure.
In New Mexico, a state with tens of thousands of oil and gas wells already, the bird’s eye view is changing, dramatically. Layered on top of historical oil and gas fields is a new and more intensive development – shale. Once thought too deep and too expensive to produce, advances in horizontal hydraulic fracturing have allowed companies to tap shale oil and gas reserves thousands of feet below the surface. These wells require more land, more water and more chemicals for drilling and fracking. And apparently, they require bigger pits for drilling and fracking wastes. Actually, in southeastern New Mexico, they don’t call them pits anymore. They call them Frack Lakes.
You could say the deeper the wells, the dirtier the gas. Viewing this development from above – the hundreds of trucks, powerlines and diesel engines required to extract the oil and gas from these wells – is Herculean. You have to wonder if it’s a break-even proposition. Are they producing more energy from these wells than it takes to get the gas out and to market? What’s more important – the energy produced or the tax credits and subsidies?
These questions don’t get the attention they deserve when oil and gas issues are debated in America and closer to home, in New Mexico. When the public demands standards that protect water, air and public health the industry is quick to dismiss concerns that their activities threaten our water and air. Instead they tell people with dozens or hundreds of wells in their communities or on their ranches that it’s in the national interest to produce energy and be energy independent. Without question, the people in New Mexico and across America’s energy-producing regions are doing their part. Those who bear the burden of energy production deserve the highest standards to prevent and minimize extraction impacts.
In New Mexico, the industry wants to get rid of the Pit Rule so it can build Frack Lakes and usher in a new era of unregulated oil and gas development. The New Mexico Oil Conservation Commission has been deliberating the last week whether to keep or throw out the Pit Rule. We anticipate a decision any day now.
I wonder what the bird’s eye view of America will be 30 years from now.