Fracking Placing a Great Burden on US Water Supplies
The use of hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells (fracking) in the United States has grown more intense in recent years. Public concern has grown around the fears that underground water supplies might become contaminated with toxic chemicals used in the well-stimulation technique that releases trapped oil and gas by cracking the rocks surrounding their small pockets. In some parts of the country, though, worries are also growing regarding fracking’s effect on local water supplies. The procedure is very water-intensive, and it stirs competition for resources already stretched by drought or other factors.
According to the Groundwater Protection Council, every fracking job requires 2 to 4 million gallons of water. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that the 35,000 oil and gas wells used for fracking consume somewhere between 70 and 140 billion gallons of water each year. That’s about equal to the water use of 40 to 80 medium size cities (50,000 people) or one to two large cities of 2.5 million. These figures are according to the EPA.
Regions where water is already in high demand and short supply are also hosting some of the most intensive oil and gas development in the nation. Ceres, a nonprofit that works on sustainability issues, published a paper recently that looked at 25,000 shale oil and shale gas wells in operation and monitored by reporting website tied to the industry called FracFocus.
47 percent of these wells were in areas with “high or extremely high water stress” because of large demands placed on the system by municipal demands, agriculture and industry. In Texas more than half of the wells studied were in high or extremely high water stress areas, where in Colorado, 92 percent of the wells were in extremely high water-stress areas.
The Ceres report concluded that “Given sharp projected increases in production in the coming years and the potentially intense nature of local water demands, competition and conflicts over water should be a growing concern for companies, policymakers and investors.” It goes on to say that last summer’s prolonged drought conditions in many parts of Colorado and Texas created increased conflict and competition between communities, energy developers and farmers, which is only likely to continue. Even in wetter regions of the northeast US, last summer saw dozens of water permits withdrawn from operators – levels of water in environmentally vulnerable headwater systems were simply too low.
The University of Texas conducted a study looking at past and projected water use for fracking in the Haynesville, Eagle Ford and Barnett shale plays in Texas, and found that from 2008 to 2011, water use for fracking had gone up by more than 100 percent. The study further shows that in Dimmit County, home to the South Texas’ Eagle Ford shale development, a quarter of overall water consumption in 2011 was for fracking alone, and that figure is expected to grow into a third in merely a year or two.
Additionally, fracking is using 7 billion gallons of water a year in four western states, according to an April report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils. Those states are North Dakota, Montana, Colorado and Wyoming. “Fracking’s growing demand for water can threaten availability of water for agriculture and western rural communities,” said Bob Leresche, a Wyoming resident and board member of the group.
American Petroleum Institute, the national oil and gas trade association, notes that the “industry’s water use is small when compared to other industrial and recreational activities.” However, even though fracking usually accounts for just 1 or 2 percent of the overall water use of a state, the Ceres study notes that “it can be much higher at the local level, increasing competition for scarce supplies.”
Are there new ways to do fracking?
The oil and gas industry, along with companies drawn by the opportunity to profit from a better way to frack, are all seeking ways to reduce and perhaps even eliminate fracking’s thirst.
Alpha Reclaim Technology, a new company in Texas, sees part of the answer in using treated wastewater from municipal sewage-treatment plants. Since its founding in 2011, the company has signed up cities to provide about 21 million gallons of treated wastewater a day, and is now negotiating with oil and gas production and exploration companies in the Eagle Ford shale play to make the switch.
Regarding water use and fracking, Jeremy Osborne, the company’s vice president and general counsel, says “We are really in a collision course here in Texas.” This course is only accelerated by population growth and drought. Jillian Ryan, Alpha’s VP for government affairs, said that changing longstanding procedures in the oil and gas industry can be a challenge. The industry talks a good game about conserving water, but Ryan said that “we can have a hard time getting oil and gas companies to live up to what they are talking about. Nobody wants to change. It’s easier to drill a water well where they are drilling [for oil and gas].”
GASFRAC Energy Services, a Canadian company, is another player in this particular niche. They say that they have successfully fracked about 2,000 wells using liquid propane gas and not water. About 100 of the wells are in Texas, the rest of them in Canada.
Two groups are alarmed at the thought of fracking with propane, though: Environmentalists and fracking critics. There is a possibility that GASFRAC would be employed in New York State, and could evade a state ban on fracking by using propane instead of water. Responding to this, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have protested to the commissioner of the states Department of Environmental Conservation. The groups said that although similar to water-based fracking, when the procedure is done with propane it is required to add toxic chemicals. And because GASFRAC’s method is proprietary, the groups said that there is little publicly available information on the process, and on the exact chemicals that are used.
Another danger is that propane is rather flammable. There were two cases in Alberta, in 2011, where fires broke out during GASFRAC operations, injuring 15 workers. Anthony Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell University, is one among those who are extremely skeptical of shale formation fracking with propane and other alternatives to water. He finds that in all the studying he has done on fracking, since the 1970s, even modern fracking practices are very inefficient and inelegant, using millions of gallons of water to obtain just 10 to 15 percent of oil and gas out.
Ingraffea notes that the use of propane to conduct fracking, or even a propane-butane mix, has at least one positive side over water-based fracking – the disposal of vast quantities of water flowing back out of the well, that is often contaminated with salts and radioactivity.
He did add that someone has yet to demonstrate that fracking with propane or another alternative, such as a nitrogen or carbon dioxide gel, can compete with water on economic terms. “Propane is expensive,” he says, “and nobody really knows how much it takes to develop a typical shale gas well with a lateral a mile or two long.”
Halliburton and Schlumberger, both oil and gas service companies, have each set a lot of bright minds and money to the task of seeking greater efficiences over many years, said Ingraffea. If there was a “silver bullet, you would think that those companies would have hit it very hard.”
The Ceres report concludes that shale energy development highlights the fact that our water resources were already stretched thin before any additional demands were places on them. Water managers, regulators and ultimately all significant economic players who rely on large sources of water must each redouble their efforts to better manage this limited and precious resource.
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