February 2016

Op-Ed: Protect the Río Chama Watershed Now


William Clark

The Río Chama Watershed, east of the San Juan Basin, is a platform that rises up from the Continental Divide and extends east into the Tusas Mountains. It is the largest contributor to the Río Grande Watershed—the source of water for more than 60 percent of New Mexico.

The Chama Watershed sits within the political boundary of New Mexico’s Río Arriba County. The confluence of the Río Chama with the Río Grande is just north of Española. It is this geological formation that creates a microclimate and recharging zone for the greater Río Grande Watershed. Within this zone lies the capacity to hold snow, rain and runoff that drains into the Río Chama, Anything that affects the Río Chama Watershed affects all life downstream, including the people and communities that are dependent upon water from the north. Río Arriba County uses approximately 10 percent of this water. The other 90 percent is adjudicated by entities such as the city of Albuquerque and various pueblos, along with the New Mexico acequia systems.

The history of exploration confirms the potential for oil and gas development in the Río Chama Watershed is low, at best, or nonexistent.*

Río Arriba County government has had a defining role in the sustainability of the Río Chama Watershed. The 2009 Oil and Gas Ordinance separated the county into two Energy Resource Districts: the Development District and the Frontier District. The Development District, west of the Continental Divide, is in the San Juan Basin. The Frontier District, east of the divide, makes up the Río Chama Watershed.

The New Mexico Legislature put forth House Bill 366 in its 2015 session to prohibit the ability of local governments to regulate the oil and gas industry. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, “Under House Bill 366, sponsored by Rep. Nate Gentry (R-Albuquerque), the state would have exclusive authority over oil and gas well siting, drilling, processing and storage—effectively restricting the ability of local governments to regulate the industry. The measure passed 6-5 on a straight party-line vote, with Republicans in favor of the bill.”

At the present time, the bill sits tabled in the Senate Conservation Committee. Bill 366 would end not only the 2009 Oil and Gas Ordinance, in Río Arriba County; it would also put an end to the Frontier District. Without the county’s authority, the citizens of Río Arriba lose the right to create their own ordinances based on community input. The oil and gas industry is working diligently to centralize decision making to the state level.

In January 2014, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Taos Field Office indefinitely deferred the sale of 16 parcels—approximately 13,300 acres—from its oil and gas lease sale in Cebolla, in the heart of the Río Chama Watershed. The BLM deferred it so it can reevaluate the potential return on investment for oil and gas and identify potential environmental risks.

The Taos Field Office requested a geologic review. Joseph R. Hewitt of the BLM Farmington District Office wrote the study, which separates the area into two study areas, north and south. Cebolla is in the south study area. In that area, only 11 wells have been drilled since 1915, without any productivity. In the northern area, 132 wells have been drilled since 1915, and only 12 have reported production. The report concludes that the south Chama Basin has low potential for oil and gas development because all of the oil and gas test wells are dry holes with no oil or gas. There is a question about whether any of the rock formations are “thermally mature,” meaning capable of producing oil and gas. The north study area has a low-to-moderate rating, with zero out of 132 wells now producing at levels far below drilling costs.

The primary threat to the bioregion is hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. All 143 wells have been conventionally drilled vertically. Unconventional drilling is also termed horizontal drilling. Horizontal drilling and fracking are the methods the industry wants to employ in the Río Chama Watershed. Unfortunately, contamination of both surface water and groundwater aquifers appears unavoidable if fracking were to occur.

It is of critical importance to note that the Río Chama Watershed differs geologically from the San Juan Basin. Potable water aquifers sit directly below the targeted Mancos Shale, Dakota Sandstone and Greenhorn Limestone formations that the industry wants to develop. This kind of exploration is known as shallow-shale fracking. Instead of the targeted Mancos and Dakota formations sitting thousands of feet below the aquifers, the two formations in the Río Chama Watershed are located above the Morrison Formation, which contains drinkable water. This is all due to the fact that the watershed is a raised platform above the San Juan Basin. The BLM Taos Field Office has stated that “unknown risks exist.”

Contaminants are a critical threat to the Río Chama Watershed. In order to effectively drill horizontally, all fracking operations use what the industry refers to as slick water. Slick water includes poisonous chemicals that could permanently contaminate the water. The 2005 Energy Policy Act exempts hydraulic fracturing from the Clean Air and Clean Water acts and provides the oil and gas industry the opportunity to ignore inconvenient facts and present “inconclusive evidence.” And drillers [or companies] are not required to reveal proprietary business practices.

A key component of the 2005 Energy Policy Act is the Halliburton loophole, which exempts oil and gas exploration companies from many EPA regulations that require disclosure of chemicals used in fracking. Many of these chemicals are extremely dangerous. Such additives include acids to dissolve minerals and open up rock fractures, biocides to kill bacteria and prevent corrosion, gels and other agents to keep the fluid at a consistent level of viscosity at different temperatures, substances to prevent clays from swelling or shifting, distillates to reduce friction, and acids to solubilize and release toxic and carcinogenic metals.

Researchers have assembled a list of over 2,500 chemical “cocktails” and examined their properties. There is very little data about the health risks generated by one-third of these chemicals; an eighth of them were toxic and carcinogenic to mammals, including benzene and uranium-238. New York State has banned high-volume fracking due to known health risks from all these chemicals. New Brunswick and other Canadian provinces have followed suit.

The Halliburton loophole was initiated by Dick Cheney, who was CEO of Halliburton before becoming U.S. vice-president. The bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush. This loophole in the Clean Air and Clean Water acts is now the law of the land. In spring 2015, New Mexico’s congressional delegation approved legislation to keep the loophole in force indefinitely.

Considering the health risks, those of us who live in the watershed should be very concerned about keeping the river free of contaminants. Once ground and surface waters are compromised, the consequences can last for centuries. People who live downstream from the Río Chama Watershed would all be affected. As they became aware of the imminent dangers, residents organized the Río Arriba Concerned Citizens (RACC), which has successfully supported indefinite deferral of the Cebolla BLM oil and gas leases.

In late March 2015, the Obama administration issued the first major federal regulations for fracking. These rules establish new safety standards for the 100,000-plus oil and gas wells on public lands. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the changes to outdated rules would allow “responsible development while protecting natural resources. As we continue to offer millions of acres of America’s public lands—your lands—for oil and gas development, it is critical that the public has confidence that robust safety and environmental protections are in place.” Unfortunately, these new regulations do not take into account the unique geology of the Río Chama Watershed. Clean-water aquifers sit right below the targeted oil and gas strata, without thousands of feet of impermeable rock separating the aquifers from oil and gas development.

One important key to the future of protecting safe water is innovation. The global economy is calling for innovation from entrepreneurs, corporations, universities, governments and, most importantly, individual citizens. One person can change the world. Consider the impacts of Albert Einstein, Rachael Carlson, Erin Brockovich, Bill and Melinda Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.

The Río Arriba Concerned Citizens continues to inform residents affected by drilling in the Río Chama Watershed and to advocate putting protective measures in place to guarantee pure water for future generations. For more information and to get involved, go to swc.eduswc.edu or email info@rioarribaconcernedcitizens.com

*Source: Geologic Review of the Oil and Gas Potential in the Southern Portion of Chama Basin, North-Central New Mexico; Eastern Río Arriba County by Joseph R. Hewitt.

William Clark is president of Río Arriba Concerned Citizens. cebollabill@gmail.com



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