Fracking and water consumption
|This article is part of the FrackSwarm coverage of fracking.|
Water is by far the largest component of fracking fluids. According to driller Chesapeake Energy, an initial drilling operation itself may consume from 6,000 to 600,000 US gallons of fracking fluids, but over its lifetime an average well may require up to an additional 5 million gallons of water for full operation and possible restimulation frac jobs.
A 2009 report on modern shale gas by the Groundwater Protection Council, "Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer," stated that “[t]he amount of water needed to drill and fracture a horizontal shale gas well generally ranges from about 2 million to 4 million gallons, depending on the basin and formation characteristics.” A 2010 Harvard study found that, on average, water consumption for natural gas produced through fracking ranges from 0.6 to 1.8 gallons of water per MMBtu (Mielke, Anadon and Narayanamurti 2010).
The extraction of so much water for fracking has raised concerns about the ecological impacts to aquatic resources, as well as dewatering of drinking water aquifers. It has also been estimated that the transportation of a million gallons of water (fresh or waste water) requires hundreds of truck trips, increasing the greenhouse gas footprint of oil and gas and contrbuting to air pollution.
- 1 Total water use
- 2 Recycling and wastewater
- 3 Water consumption issues by region
- 4 Water politics
- 5 Reports
- 6 Resources
Total water use
In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was directed by Congress to conduct research to examine the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water resources, to be finished in 2012. A 2011 EPA report estimated that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are used to fracture 35,000 wells in the United States each year - approximately the annual water consumption of 40 to 80 cities each with a population of 50,000, according to Earthworks. Fracture treatments in coalbed methane wells use from 50,000 to 350,000 gallons of water per well, while deeper horizontal shale wells can use anywhere from 2 to 10 million gallons of water to fracture a single well.
Looking at industry records on the website FracFocus, the group Skytruth calculated that between January 2011 and August 2012, a total of 20 months, the U.S. used at least 65.9 billion gallons of water to frack for oil and gas, with Texas accounting for almost half of all water use.
Recycling and wastewater
Due to public concerns about the high volume of water used in fracking, oil and gas drilling companies have started reusing and recycling the wastewater. The natural-gas industry uses a number of methods to recycle drilling waste. Some drillers have used recycling equipment at the well site or trucked the water to a recycling facility where the wastewater is filtered, evaporated, and then distilled, to be used again at the well. Other companies add fresh water to the wastewater, to dilute the salts and other contaminants, before pumping it back in the ground for more hydrofracking. Some of it sold for use as dust suppression or to melt ice on roads, because the brine wastewater tends to be extremely salty. Any fracking sludge that settles from these various processes is taken to landfills or is sent to injection disposal wells.
The NY Times reported in 2011 that the full amount of wastewater recycled is hard to assess because of lack of state records, and recycling does not eliminate potential environmental and health risks, due in part to regulatory exemptions on fracking waste:
- "As gas producers have tried to find new ways to get rid of their waste, they have sought reassurances from state and federal regulators that the industry’s exemptions from federal laws on hazardous waste were broad enough to protect them ... If drillers were to lose the exemption from federal law that allowed their waste not to be considered hazardous, they would probably be forced, at great expense, to start more rigorously testing the waste for toxicity. They might also have to do what most other industries do: ship any sludge or salts that are high in radioactivity to Idaho or Washington State, where there are some of the only landfills in the country permitted to accept such waste. "
In 2009, Pennsylvania regulators tried to strengthen oversight of the industry’s methods for disposing of its waste, and the Marcellus Shale Coalition staunchly opposed the effort. Three of the top state officials at a meeting on the subject have since left the government — for the natural-gas industry.
Pennsylvania state and company records show that in the year and a half that ended in December 2010, well operators reported recycling almost half of their drilling wastewater - 320 out of 680 million gallons. But at least 260 million gallons of wastewater were sent to plants that discharge their treated waste into rivers according to state data - an amount that would fill more than 28,800 tanker trucks stretching from about New York City to Richmond, Virginia. At least 50 million additional gallons of wastewater is unaccounted for, according to state records, due to gaps in tracking.
More than 155,000 gallons of wastewater was sent by drilling company Ultra Resources to nine towns for dust suppression in 2009, state records show. The water came from two gas wells in Tioga County and contained radium at almost 700 times the levels allowed in drinking water.
In West Virginia, environmental regulators and highway officials announced plans in 2010 for the state to start paying around five cents per gallon for gas drilling wastewater known as brine to melt ice on roads. They planned to buy about 1.2 million gallons of the wastewater at more than 120 sites around the state and to buy more as needed. There is a concern, however, that when the ice melts any chemicals, radioactive contaminants, and heavy metals in the wastewater will run off into water supplies.
Water consumption issues by region
In 2012, the Gazette reported that in many parts of Colorado, municipal water supplies are a common source for drillers, sometimes tapping directly from fire hydrants. Houston-based Ultra Resources appears to be buying water from three private wells near Ellicott, all of which draw on the Laramie-Fox Hills aquifer roughly 800 feet below ground, but has also contacted several of the water districts near its El Paso County wells for additional supplies, including Colorado Springs Utilities, Security Water and Sewer District and Fountain’s water department. None can supply users outside their district limits without a vote by their boards. Drillers are required to use water permitted for industrial uses, but don’t have to disclose where it comes from.
Drilling supporters argue that more than 85 percent of Colorado’s water is used for agriculture, and only 7.5 percent is used by municipalities, which makes the proportion used for fracking look insignificant. Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates argues that instead of comparing oil and gas to agriculture, oil and gas needs should be compared to other municipal demands, because it is at the local level where the use of water for fracking is going to become significant. WRA estimates that in 2011, for example, water for oil and gas production accounted for between one-third and two-thirds of Weld County’s total domestic supply. While 90 percent of residential indoor water use is reused because it is processed by a wastewater treatment facility, water used for fracking is too polluted to be recycled for indoor use.
Oil and gas outbid farmers
On April 2, 2012, it was reported that companies providing water for hydraulic fracturing at well sites were top bidders on Colorado water supplies once claimed exclusively by the state's farmers. The average price paid for water at the auctions has subsequently increased from around $22 an acre-foot in 2010 to $28 in 2012. Colorado state officials charged with promoting and regulating the energy industry estimated that fracking required about 13,900 acre-feet of water in 2010, about 0.08 percent of the total water consumed in Colorado. A Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission report projected water needs for fracking will increase to 18,700 acre-feet a year by 2015. Environmentalists point out that the water used by fracking gets lost from the hydrological cycle forever because it becomes contaminated.
The Marcellus shale
In July 2012, as another round of record heat and drought hit the mid-Atlantic region, the Susquehanna River Basin suspended 64 water withdrawal permits, the majority going to in state Marcellus shale gas drillers. Saying the Susquehanna River and its tributaries face low water conditions, the suspensions were issued to 33 companies, of which 27 were shale gas drillers, including Chesapeake Appalachia LLC, Talisman Energy, Chevron Appalachia, EXCO, XTO Energy, Cabot Oil & Gas and other drillers.
A 2013 study published in Environmental Science and Technology looked at past and projected water use for fracking in the Barnett, Eagle Ford, and Haynesville shale plays in Texas, and found that fracking in 2011 was using more than twice as much water in the state as it was three years earlier. In Dimmit County, home to the Eagle Ford shale development in South Texas, fracking accounted for nearly a quarter of overall water consumption in 2011 and is expected to grow to a third in a few years, according to the study.
The 2013 Western Organization of Resource Councils report, "Gone for good: Fracking and water loss in the West," found that fracking is using 7 billion gallons of water a year in four western states: Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and North Dakota.
Private water utilities
The National Association of Water Companies represents the privatized water utility industry that serves “nearly 73 million people every day” and represents more than 150 private water companies, each of whom pay an annual fee to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded group that opposes federal oversight of fracking.
According to The American Independent, NAWC works with ALEC to persuade state and local officials to adopt policies favorable to the private water industry. NAWC declined to comment on when it first became involved with ALEC and the amount it pays in annual dues.
Two of the country’s biggest private water utility companies – American Water and Aqua America – are dues-paying members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which lobbies to expand fracking, and both companies are on the NAWC’s board of directors. The two utility companies are participants in the Coalition's ongoing effort to expand shale gas drilling. Aqua America has made sizable water acquisitions in Texas and Ohio, and is also building a pipeline in Pennsylvania to supply water to drillers. Aqua America CEO Nicholas DeBenedictis is also director of Exelon, and a former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources.
Fracking and water shortages
A 2013 report by the group Ceres, "Hydraulic Fracturing Faces Growing Competition for Water Supplies in Water-Stressed Regions," examined 25,450 fracked wells across the United States and found that 47 percent lie in areas that face high or extremely high “water stress.” In those areas, at least 80 percent of the available fresh water is already being used in homes, farms, or businesses. The report is based on well drilling and water use data from FracFocus.org and water stress indicator maps developed by the World Resources Institute (WRI).
Gas, coal, and nuclear water use
The June 2012 River Network report, "Burning Our Rivers: The Water Footprint of Electricity," calculates how much water is used to generate electricity on an average per-kilowatt basis. The report found that electricity production by coal, nuclear, and natural gas power plants is the fastest-growing use of freshwater in the U.S., accounting for more than about half of all freshwater surface withdrawals from rivers -- more than any other economic sector, including agriculture.
Variation in water usage
The 2012 Pacific Institute report, "Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Resources: Separating the Frack from the Fiction," concluded that the U.S. EPA has likely underestimated the water needs of hydraulic fracturing in its estimate of 2.3 million to 3.8 million gallons per well, as there is a large amount of variability in the water withdrawals. The report cites as an example that while less than 5 million gallons is needed in the Woodford Shale in Texas, the water consumption rises to 13 million gallons in the state's Eagle Ford formation. It can be difficult to estimate the lifetime requirements of the well given the uncertainty over how many times the well will be fracked. The report also states that although water withdrawals may appear small when considering the resources of a state as a whole, the effect can be large at the local level: because the frack water cannot be reused and returned to the water cycle, it represents a consumptive use that can alter flows underground. The report focuses on surface spills and leaks during production, improper drilling well casings, wastewater disposal, water usage, and air emissions, and is based on a literature review, as well as interviews with 16 representatives from state and federal offices, industry and nonprofit groups.
Coal water for fracking
A 2012 report from the RAND Corporation concludes acid mine drainage water from coal mines is plentiful and technically feasible for fracturing, though quality is a concern. The report is the proceedings of a December 2011 roundtable conference on the "Feasibility and Challenges of Using Acid Mine Drainage for Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Extraction." Water that drains from abandoned or actively managed mines is often acidic and is sometimes drained into local streams. The idea of using water from coal mines that could otherwise present an environmental problem would also reduce the amount of freshwater used by Marcellus shale drillers. But using the coal wastewater can pose its own risks and challenges: the salinity, chemical composition, and other properties of coal mine water can vary substantially.
EPA taps researchers to review drinking water study
In was reported in March 2013 that the "U.S. EPA has lined up experts from universities, government, research firms and the energy industry to review the agency's sweeping study of hydraulic fracturing's effect on drinking water. The agency's Scientific Advisory Board announced yesterday that the experts would form the peer-review panel for highly anticipated fracking research due out in 2014. The group will scrutinize EPA's analysis and give scientific feedback throughout the process."
- Water Usage. Chesapeake Energy site hydraulicfracturing.com.
- "Hydraulic Fracturing 101: Water Use," Earthworks, accessed April 2012.
- "Hydraulic Fracturing 101: Water Use," Earthworks, accessed April 2012.
- EPA, Draft Plan to Study the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., February 7, 2011.
- "PART I: What 20 Months of Water Consumption for Fracking in the U.S. Looks Like," Skytruth, Sep. 25, 2012.
- Ian Urbina, "Wastewater Recycling No Cure-All in Gas Process," NY Times, March 1, 2011.
- Andrew Wineke, "The key ingredient in oil drilling? Water," The Gazette, April 27, 2012.
- Jefferson Dodge, "Frackwater blues: Drought, hydraulic fracturing may be on a collision course," Boulder Weekly, May 10, 2012.
- Bruce Finley, "Fracking bidders top farmers at water auction," The Denver Post, April 2, 2012.
- Robert Magyar, "Near drought conditions impacting Marcellus shale gas drilling," The Examiner, July 19, 2012.
- Jean-Philippe Nicot and Bridget R. Scanlon, "Water Use for Shale-Gas Production in Texas, U.S.," Environ. Sci. Technol. 2012, 46, 3580−3586.
- Sarah Pavlus, "How the Private Water Industry Is Teaming Up ALEC: ALEC has worked with the energy industry to create loophole-filled water protections and opposes federal oversight of fracking," American Independent News Network, May 4, 2012.
- Sarah Pavlus, "Shocking Conflict of Interest: Private Water Companies Partner With Fracking Lobby Selling water to drillers, two of the nation's biggest private water utilities may soon profit from treating the wastewater," American Independent News Network, April 19, 2012.
- "Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Water Demand by the Numbers," Ceres, Feb 2014.
- Gayathri Vaidyanathan, "Greater dangers lie beyond aquifer contamination -- report," E&E, June 21, 2012.
- Taylor Kuykendall, "Coal mine water considered for frac fluids," The State Journal, Apr 17, 2012.
- ["HYDRAULIC FRACTURING: EPA taps researchers, industry to review drinking water study"] E&E, March 26, 2013.
Related SourceWatch articles
For state-by-state information on fracking click on the map below:
- Global Water Tool, The global oil and gas industry association for environmental and social issues.
- Local Water Tool, Global Environment Management Initiative.
- Oil and Gas Management Compliance, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Office of Oil and Gas Management interactive database
- FRAC: Fracking Regulatory Action Center, Sierra Club
- Fraccidents Map
- Timeline: How We Learned to Love—and Hate—Natural Gas, Mother Jones, 2012.