Data Dump: Grim statistics for grim times
Tainted O&G wastewater; suicide rates; traffic fatalities; and one piece of good news
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a global tragedy. It’s yet another utterly unnecessary war, waged by a delusional madman desperately clinging to power, that has shattered European peace, killed hundreds of people already, and will upend millions of Ukrainians’ lives.
It will also make life tougher for much of the rest of the world. Oil and natural gas prices will continue to climb, and since the global economy is still highly dependent on fossil fuels, that will drive prices for food, electricity, and manufactured goods sky high, as well. Oil companies and the politicians they already are using the crisis as justification to drill for more oil and gas on America’s public lands and to build more terminals to export the methane overseas as LNG. At best, this would give a touch of short-term relief to high prices, but it’s certainly no long-term fix: Only weaning ourselves off fossil fuels altogether will provide a lasting solution. At the same time, those same oil companies are trying to talk the Biden administration out of harsh sanctions against Russia’s energy sector—the kind of sanctions that would actually work—because they might hurt American companies’ investments in Russian projects.
Not only should sanctions hit Russia’s oil and gas industry hard, but they should also target the Putin-linked oligarchs who have used Wyoming as their tax haven.
Here’s hoping international pressure will force Putin to back off and end the bloodshed soon.
And now that we’re all in a bad mood already, I might as well deliver some more bad news via the numbers, so…
THE NEWS: Using new sampling methods, researchers find wastewater—aka produced water—from oil and gas wells in the Permian Basin contains a soup of nasty compounds and elements, including toxic pesticides, heavy metals and carcinogens.
THE CONTEXT: Okay, this isn’t really a big surprise. Folks have known for a long time that produced water (I’ll explain this stuff in a moment) is not only super salty, but also contains harmful stuff. But this recent study, published in Environmental Science & Technology (and behind an expensive paywall), used new, specialized methodologies to map the contents with more detail.
Imagine an oil and gas well as a giant, 10,000-foot-long straw reaching into the earth and drawing from a subterranean hydrocarbon melange. Most new wells are targeting oil, which is far more profitable currently than fossil gas (aka methane, aka natural gas). But the straw is just a straw, and can’t just pull out the oil. Instead it siphons everything in the mix, which includes “associated gases” such as methane and ethane, as well as benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and water—gobs and gobs of water. Because the well “produces” the water just like it produces oil and gas, the water is called “produced water.”
Produced water varies in chemical composition from place to place—it can be more brackish than sea water (and often is prehistoric seawater), and contain mercury, arsenic, and other naturally occurring heavy metals as well as volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene, and xylene (monocyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and naphthalene, anthracene, and benzopyrene (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). When the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division tested coalbed methane water from the San Juan Basin in 1989, they found that it contained very high levels of sodium bicarbonate, i.e. baking soda, along with elevated concentrations of barium and radium-226 and -228. Produced water also contains chemicals shot into the well during hydraulic fracturing, which can include everything from walnut shells, to dish soap, to carboxymethyl hydroxypropyl, guar gum, zirconium-based crosslinker, and persulfate breaker. But, of course, oil and gas companies often refuse to disclose all the ingredients because it’s a “trade secret.”
After it’s pumped from the well, the water is usually put into storage tanks at the well site. The water is regularly transferred to trucks, and then taken to a disposal facility, which explains why dirt- and mud-encrusted water trucks are ubiquitous on the back roads of every gas patch in the West, even during times when the drill rigs are idle. In the early days, the produced water was dumped right back into an arroyo or stream. Now it is put into lined evaporation ponds, which can be death traps for water-seeking birds, or it is injected thousands of feet deep into disposal wells. Each year, enough water to fill three thousand Olympic-sized swimming pools is sucked from one geologic formation, put in tanks, moved in trucks, and put back in ponds, before getting shot back into a deeper formation at extremely high pressures.
Produced water re-injection has caused serious upticks in seismic activity in the Permian Basin, parts of Oklahoma, and elsewhere. That has led regulators to limit that disposal method and look more deeply into recycling produced water, for use in hydraulic fracturing or even treating it and using it in agriculture. It’s not clear what effects the new findings may have on these ambitions.
266 Number of dissolved organic compounds researchers found in samples of Permian Basin produced water samples, including pesticides and known carcinogens, benzene, napthalene, pyridine, .
29 Number of elements detected in Permian Basin produced water, including chromium, cadmium, lead, uranium, and selenium.
6 Average barrels of water produced by Southeast New Mexico oil wells for every 1 barrel of oil produced.
512 million gallons Amount of water pumped out of coalbed methane wells, alone, on the New Mexico side of the San Juan Basin in 2021.
1.9 billion gallons Volume of produced water from all oil and gas wells injected back underground in Southeast and Northwest New Mexico in 2021.
46.5 million gallons Total base water volume of the hydraulic fracturing fluid used to complete Devon Energy’s Hognose Viper 23 well in Lea County, New Mexico.
750,000 Estimated average number of birds killed annually from landing in oil and gas wastewater pits.
The headline on this next one made me think it was a touch of good news on a sad subject: Across the United States, suicide rates dropped between 2019 and 2020. Then I looked at the statistics. While rates did go down nationwide, the same was not true for some states in the Interior West, where suicide rates historically have been far higher than the rest of the nation, leading some to call it the “suicide belt.” As you’ll see from the graph below, Wyoming and Idaho saw suicide rates increase, while Montana and New Mexico’s rates stayed about the same.
And, sorry, but here’s some more bad news. Traffic fatalities went up last year in a number of Western states. Colorado has the most up-to-date stats we’ve found, but they are indicative of trends elsewhere, unfortunately.
But, wait … Could it be? Yes! Yes it is! It’s some good news! A couple whopping storms pounded the San Juan Mountains in Southwestern Colorado, bolstering what was quickly becoming a dismal snowpack. The San Juan River watershed’s snowpack is now right at the median level for this time of year. It’s also healthier than 2021 and about equal to 2020 for late February. A relief, for sure.
Things aren’t looking quite as good for the Upper Colorado River watershed as a whole, but there was needed improvement.
THE LAND DESK OUT AND ABOUT (in other outlets, that is):
For High Country News, graphics wiz Luna Anna Archey and I put together some data on power-guzzling data centers and cryptocurrency miners and how they are setting up shop around the West to take advantage of cheap electricity, favorable regulations, and even government incentives. Read it!
And for Sierra Magazine I wrote a piece on how the Ukraine conflict could force Europe to reckon with its dependency on Russian natural gas, and may even push it to wean itself from methane gas altogether. Read it!
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