Sinkholes and wasted water: oil industry destructiveness in New Mexico

The state of New Mexico is highly dependent on the oil and gas sector for revenue, but the destruction from drilling and fracking is extensive. In addition to its role in climate change, a new problem has developed: fracking operations are creating giant sinkholes in New Mexico.

In July of 2008, a large plot of land in southeastern New Mexico caved in, resulting in a sinkhole 120 feet deep and 400 feet wide. A few months later in November, another sinkhole of similar size opened up in the same region. Both holes were within 30 miles of the city of Carlsbad, a town of 30,000 people. Both were near major roads,highways and other civilian and commercial infrastructure

Researchers are worried that the next sinkhole will be much bigger and without successful remediation efforts could hit the southern edge of the city itself as early as 2021. A significant portion of the city could be swallowed up, with serious implications for the people of the area.

Such ecological destruction garners little press attention from the capitalist media because the oil industry is so critical to the state. Despite claims by industry scientists, these sinkholes are not natural occurrences but rather the direct consequences of fracking operations.

The growing number of sinkholes are occurring at the sites of brine wells—sites where millions of gallons of water are pumped deep underground to mix with subterranean layers of salt. The mixture of water and salt creates brine which is then pumped to the surface and used later for fracking operations. As the brine is pumped out, it leaves a giant underground cavity beneath the earth’s surface that is incapable of sustaining the weight above it and thus collapses in on itself.

This operation is a testament to the brazen disregard that profit-hungry oil corporations have towards human life and the environment. The competitive search for greater profits drives them to continue with this harmful practice even when it presents an immediate, tangible threat to thousands of people’s lives. 

Oil Industry Wasting Obscene Amounts of Water

Environmentally destructive fracking exacerbates a second problem. Rivers, streams and aquifers are disappearing at an alarming rate. Due to a combination of climate change and wasteful overpumping by capitalist agribusiness and ranching, natural water resources are being drained at a much faster rate than they can be replenished. While the lion’s share of water resources (80 percent) is allocated for unsustainable large-scale farming and ranching, a small but growing portion is being used for fracking.

The introduction of fracking technology in the 2010s onto the Permian Basin (which stretches from southeastern New Mexico to Western Texas) led to an oil boom in an area that previously made modest contributions to domestic oil production. In 2018, New Mexico was the 3rd largest producer of oil in the United States, surpassed only by Texas and North Dakota. This boom has resulted in massive profits for fossil fuel monopolies while creating devastating ecological consequences.

Hydraulic fracturing—more commonly known as fracking—involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and various chemicals into wells to fracture the solid subterranean layers of sandstone, shale, coal beds and other low-permeability substances. This process improves the flow of oil to fracking wells. Just drilling wells in New Mexico’s distinct geology demands millions of gallons of fresh water and brine. Once the wells are built, fracking them requires additional millions of gallons of water, and millions more gallons of brine used at different phases of well operations. 

Fracking operations in New Mexico create a massive amount of contaminated wastewater—over 100 million gallons daily. This water has been contaminated by the chemicals used for drilling and combines with other toxic subterranean substances. Some of the wastewater is “cleaned” and recycled for later industrial use, but at least half of it is stored permanently in 721 waste wells across the state, never to be used again.

During the past decade the oil industry in New Mexico added 600 new wells each year reaching 26,000 in 2018. The current decline in demand for oil products has slowed development, but growth will begin again when demand returns.

Fossil fuels are unnecessary; capitalism hinders progress

What makes these tragedies even worse is that reliable alternatives have emerged that could end reliance on this destructive fuel source.The technology for a complete transition to wind, water and solar energy exists. If the infrastructure is built, global energy demands could be met with these three sources. 

With fracking, fossil fuel extraction in the United States has grown massively, transforming the U.S. into the world’s leading fossil fuel producer. This motive for increased oil and gas production in the United States is not because there is a lack of energy supplies domestically or internationally. It is production for export and geared toward global competition with other oil producing countries. 

Major resistance to this transition results from the tremendous power exerted by the fossil fuel industry on both capitalist political parties. This situation will not change with the incoming Biden administration. While claiming to support a major program to deal with climate change, he intends to allow fracking to continue and rejects the concept of a Green New Deal.

The real solution will only come when the power of the fossil fuel industry is ended. That can only be accomplished by the conversion to a socialist economy. A conversion that must take place now.

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