Bad water:
That’s what occurs when we let drilling get the upper hand

Oil and gas drilling in New Mexico has a bad reputation, to say the least.

I can't think of anyone outside of the industry itself, and the lawmakers in its pocket, who has a good word to say about drilling companies, who appear to feel entitled to do anything they want to anybody's land and water in the pursuit of their sacred right to profit.

A big fight around Santa Fe over drilling for oil in the Galisteo Basin has brought the issue to a boil once again. And it could flare up in Albuquerque, too, if exploration for natural gas on the West Mesa succeeds.

In oil drilling, the question is always who suffers and who benefits - not in the abstract but in the details of daily lives.

Sure, the American economy needs more American oil. But mining and property laws are often ruinous to ranchers, farmers and homeowners who are beset by drillers, their wastes and their high-handed assumption that their right to profit is greater than the property rights of those they traumatize.

Gas drilling in the San Juan Basin has brought huge profits to drillers - and destroyed the livelihoods of many ranchers, killing their cattle with drilling waste.

And the ranchers have absolutely no recourse. It amounts to the privatization of eminent domain, in which a company with mineral rights can use someone else's surface rights, despoil their land, their peace of mind and their property value, all to make money just for themselves.

The chief problem with drilling in the Galisteo Basin is soil and water pollution. Tecton, the Texas company drilling in the basin, claims to have new, cleaner technologies. But oil and gas drilling around water cannot be accomplished without damaging the water. It's a physical impossibility.

Here's a partial list of potential wastes that come from exploratory and production drilling: huge quantities of brine, or "produced water," associated with oil and gas deposits; water runoff from cleaning rigs and vehicles; engine coolants and water- and oil-separating antifreeze; benzene; drilling fluid, sometimes called "mud," with its clays and chemical additives that cools and lubricates the drill heads; drill cuttings; the various lubricants that keep the drill tubes going; hydrogen sulfide from bacteria on field equipment, killed only by dangerous biocides; oil debris in filters; dirty diesel; and halons and other ozone-depleting chemicals used as fire and explosion suppressants.

The issue here is simple. Pollution is no longer a cost-saving irresponsibility. It has to be cleaned up, and that costs lots of money and takes a long time. And the water might never be drinkable again. And who pays? Usually the taxpayer, not the companies.

Correction: Last week, I should have said that Manuel Lujan ousted Tom Morris to win his U.S. House seat in 1969.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
October 26, 2007