Water and Energy

The state of New Mexico has an abundance of energy resources including traditional sources such as fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and uranium, as well as renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal resources. While renewables are playing an increasing role in the region’s energy portfolio, traditional energy resources play a very important role in the state’s economy and will continue to do so for many decades.

Within the state, the San Juan structural basin of northwestern NM has long been recognized as a region with abundant energy resources and advances in extractive technologies has further increased the availability of economically viable resources. Newer extractive technologies require water for both construction and operational extraction, and in a region that is characterized by limited surface water and complex hydrostratigraphy, understanding the interaction between energy development and water resources is of particular import. Research in the CWE will evaluate the availability, occurrence and relationship between groundwater (both fresh and brackish) and energy resources in the San Juan Basin. It will be accomplished by incorporating existing information into a basin-wide system dynamics model to develop a quantitative understanding of the relationship between water resources and development of energy resources in the basin.

Shale gas development using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing is growing dramatically due to the high energy demands in the US and in many other parts of the world. However, there is limited knowledge about how these activities affect the release of metals, radionuclides, petrochemicals, and other contaminants that have been shown to negatively affect drinking water quality and human health. Recent studies have reported that the concentration of metals and radionuclides in flowback water can increase by several orders of magnitude as a result of hydraulic fracturing operations at the Marcellus shale. Most of the existing literature related to water quality effects resulting from shale gas development in the US has been generated from investigations in the Marcellus Shale; there is limited information about the impact of shale gas fracking on groundwater resources in Northwestern New Mexico and other locations in the Southwestern US.

Wellbore systems comprised of casing (hollow steel pipe) and cement are used to protect groundwater and the surrounding environments from contaminants inside the well that result from shale gas development. When the integrity of the wellbore system is compromised, methane, heavy metals, radionuclides, and other organic contaminants can migrate up the wellbore and negatively impact adjacent groundwater resources. Leaky wellbores have been identified as the most likely mechanism for groundwater contamination from shale gas development. Wellbores become leaky due to preferential pathways that develop during cement placement and/or from mechanical-thermal stresses that produce micro- to macro-sized fractures (damage). The preferential pathways can be fractures in the cement, the formation of a permeable annulus between the cement and the casing, and/or a permeable contact between the rock and cement. Once formed, the flow rate through the preferential pathways in the wellbore system can change as a result of changes in the leaking fluid pressure and/or chemical interaction with the leaking fluid. Consequently, the contamination potential of a wellbore can change with time in response to interactions with the leaking fluid. Research in the CWE will investigate potential mechanisms for groundwater contamination resulting from the interaction of the wellbore system and frack-related fluids (liquid and gas) under expected conditions (stress, temperature, chemical) for shale gas development.

Read more about the specific research projects being done in the CWE.