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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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As Drought Hits, Fracking Poses Threat to Water Supply

A new report finds that hydraulic fracturing is posing a growing risk to water supplies in several regions around the country. Only, instead of groundwater contamination that so often makes the headlines, it is from the massive consumption of fresh water in water-parched areas like Texas, Colorado, and California. Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) requires millions of gallons of water to frack single well, and in places that are suffering epic droughts, fracking is increasingly competing for access to water with other uses.

The report, “Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Stress,” comes from Ceres, a network of investors, companies, and public interest groups that pushes investor money towards sustainable practices. Ceres finds that about three-quarters of all the 39,294 wells hydraulically fractured between January 2011 and May 2013 (the time period they studied) have occurred in water scarce areas, and more than half in areas suffering from drought.

Related article: Natural Gas Locomotives Soon in North America?

Nowhere is the nexus of fracking and water starker than in the Eagle Ford Shale in south Texas, which produces over 1.2 million barrels of oil and 6 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. The Eagle Ford suffers from the biggest water challenges out of any shale play in the United States. It has the highest water consumption out of any other shale formation in the country right now. Over 90% of the water used in the affected counties comes from groundwater, as opposed to surface water, contributing to the depletion of aquifers.

The report finds that, “Texas is ground zero for water sourcing risks due to intense shale energy production in recent years.” And the problem of water use is compounded by the fact that Texas has been suffering from several years of meager rainfall. As Ceres notes, “over two-thirds of Texas continues to experience drought conditions, key groundwater aquifers are under stress and the state’s population is growing.”

Agriculture and the consumption of water in cities remain the largest sources of water consumption, much more than fracking, but drilling for oil and gas often occur in small communities in dry areas, and thus have an outsized influence over the consumption pattern of water. Competing interests, such as cattle ranching, farming, other industry, and residential use, are finding water more and more a cherished commodity to come by. There are 29 communities in Texas with a presence of oil and gas drilling that are in danger of running out of water within days.

Related article: Why Current Solutions to Solving our Energy Problems Won’t Work

Ceres also looked at individual companies with the most exposure to water sourcing risk. For example, Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC) leads the pack with more than 70% of its wells located in high water stress areas. Anadarko used over six billion gallons of water over the study period. Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK) was the biggest user of water out of all the operators measured in the report, but with much of its drilling operations focused in the relatively wet Marcellus Shale, its risk exposure wasn’t as bad as Anadarko’s. The report offers a warning to investors: should these companies be cut off from access to water due to inadequate water supply or water restrictions by local governments, their operations – and therefore their profitability – could be put at risk.

The Ceres report provides a series of recommendations which include recycling of water used during fracking (a practice already becoming more commonplace among drillers); using wastewater or brackish water; disclosing more information, not only on water use from the company perspective, but also on water availability and requirements for the basin as a whole; and tougher regulations governing the use of water in dry regions.

The competition between water use for fracking and other uses is not new, particularly in dry areas, but with oil and gas production in Texas expected to double over the next five years, the issue will only grow in its importance.

By. Nick Cunningham




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  • Martin Katchen on February 07 2014 said:
    Why can't Texas at least, particularly in Eagle Ford, use seawater for frakking instead of fresh water. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait use seawater to maintain pressure in THEIR oil bearing strate.
    I suspect that one of the prerequisites for frakking in places where water is short is going to be something that should be required for frakking everywhere--the desalinisation (probably using the Israeli solar technique) of frakking waste water and concentration of salts including radium so that they can be separated and if possible marketed as chemical byproducts rather than disposed of as waste. Even radium may turn out to be useful once thorium reactors that can react radium as well as thorium and extract energy from it, leaving only lead, start to be built.
  • Synapsid on February 07 2014 said:
    A point I didn't see in the article strikes me as an odd thing not to mention: A drilling company obtains water for fracking by buying from the owner of the water rights. That's it. The only two entities involved are the drilling co. and the owner of the water rights.

    Those owners have the ability to curtail fracking in drought-stressed Texas. It seems that many of them choose not to.
  • onlymho on February 09 2014 said:
    All fracking wastewater should be required to be recycled rather than any of the currently used methods of disposal which would result in far fewer occurances of spillage and surface contamination. When the water is recycled, how are the extracted contaminants to be disposed of and handled? This incremental cost will generat additional employment opportunities while reducing the cost of water sourcing for additional fracks and be offset by the current wastewater disposal costs. Any incremental cost should be borne by the price of the gas produced - as should any waste production in any and all industries.
  • Concerned Citizen on February 09 2014 said:
    The fact that seems to be clouding the discussion about fracking is that it is not about lower carbon emissions or a cleaner environment, fracking is all about water. If the facts are known and understood, there should not even BE an argument. On average it takes 3 - 5 million gallons of fresh water to frack a well and a well can be fracked multiple times. The concept that people find difficult if not impossible to grasp is that the water used in fracking is gone forever, it can never perform its function of providing nourishment and life to both plants and animals. It turns from a life giving source to one that is hazardous to all forms of life. Water has always been associated in our minds as a way to clean things and possibly it is this mental association that makes it almost impossible to comprehend that water used in fracking can never be cleaned. Water used in fracking remains toxic for thousands of years and cannot be treated to render it potable, it is gone, taken off the table so to speak. Further a little bit of calculation shows that water used in fracking is used on a weight for weight basis. That is a kilo of fresh water is needed to extract a kilo of natural gas. I have noticed that from the time that this information about the water used in fracking being ‘gone forever’ being more widely disseminated and understood oil companies are making a big thing about re-using the fracking water. However there are only three ways in which fracked water can be treated :
    • Diluted with fresh water on site and used for another well.
    • Treated on site and used for another well.
    • Hauled off site for treatment and/or disposal in permitted deep injection wells
    What the oil companies neglect to tell you is that only about 10% - 30% of the water used for fracking returns to the surface the rest of the water remains underground. It is also interesting to note the shift in terminology returning fracking water was till recently known as ‘flowback’ now it is known as ‘produced’ water, just a nuance but still effective, to begin with it is positive sounding. Potentially lethal chemically treated fresh water used in fracking used to be known simply as ‘fracking water’ now the Industry term for ‘fracking water’ is ‘processed water’. What a wonderful sound that has to it, the water has been processed and is ready for use!

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