Fracking Is Already Straining U.S. Water Supplies

An Encana fracking operation in Colorado (AP photo).

As the level of hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells in the United States has intensified in recent years, much of the mounting public concern has centered on fears that underground water supplies could be contaminated with the toxic chemicals used in the well-stimulation technique that cracks rock formations and releases trapped oil and gas. But in some parts of the country, worries are also growing about fracking’s effect on water supply, as the water-intensive process stirs competition for the resources already stretched thin by drought or other factors.

Every fracking job requires 2 million to 4 million gallons of water, according to the Groundwater Protection Council. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, has estimated that the 35,000 oil and gas wells used for fracking consume between 70 billion and 140 billion gallons of water each year. That’s about equal, EPA says, to the water use in 40 to 80 cities with populations of 50,000 people, or one to two cities with a population of 2.5 million each.

Some of the most intensive oil and gas development in the nation is occurring in regions where water is already at a premium. A paper published last month by Ceres, a nonprofit that works on sustainability issues, looked at 25,000 shale oil and shale gas wells in operation and monitored by an industry-tied reporting website called FracFocus.

Ceres found that 47 percent of these wells were in areas “with high or extremely high water stress” because of large withdrawals for use by industry, agriculture, and municipalities. In Colorado, for example, 92 percent of the wells were in extremely high water-stress areas, and in Texas more than half were in high or extremely high water-stress areas.

“Given projected sharp 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,” the Ceres report concluded. It goes on to say that:

Prolonged drought conditions in many parts of Texas and Colorado last summer created increased competition and conflict between farmers, communities and energy developers, which is only likely to continue. … Even in wetter regions of the northeast United States, dozens of water permits granted to operators had to be withdrawn last summer due to low levels in environmentally vulnerable headwater streams.

Another recent study by the University of Texas 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.

Moreover, an April report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils found that fracking is using 7 billion gallons of water a year in four western states: Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and North Dakota. “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.

The national oil and gas trade association, American Petroleum Institute, correctly notes that the “industry’s water use is small when compared to other industrial and recreational activities.” But even though hydraulic fracturing usually accounts for just 1 percent or 2 percent of states’ overall water use, the Ceres study notes that “it can be much higher at the local level, increasing competition for scarce supplies.”

New ways to frack

Not surprisingly, 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 even eliminate fracking’s thirst.

A new company in Texas, Alpha Reclaim Technology, sees using treated wastewater from municipal sewage-treatment plants as part of the answer. Founded in 2011, the company has signed up cities to provide about 21 million gallons of treated wastewater a day and is negotiating with oil and gas exploration and production companies to make the switch in the Eagle Ford shale play.

With regard to 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”—a course he says is accelerated by drought and population growth.

But Jillian Ryan, Alpha Reclaim Technology’s vice president for government affairs, said changing longstanding practices in the oil and gas industry can be a challenge. While the industry talks a good game about conserving water, Ryan says, “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].”

Another player in this oil and gas niche is GASFRAC Energy Services, a Canadian company that says it has successfully fracked about 2,000 wells using liquid propane gas in place of water. Most of these wells are in Canada, but about 100 of them are in Texas.

Environmentalists and fracking critics, however, are alarmed at the thought of fracking with propane. Prompted by the possibility that GASFRAC would be employed in New York state and could evade a state moratorium on fracking by using propane instead of water, environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, protested to the commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Similar to water-based fracking, the groups said, fracking with propane also requires “the addition of toxic chemicals.” Because GASFRAC’s method is proprietary, the groups said in their letter that “there is little publicly-available information on the process” and the exact chemicals it uses.

Propane is also very flammable, and in two cases in Alberta in 2011, fires broke out during GASFRAC fracking operations, injuring a total of 15 workers.

Cornell University engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea is among those who are very skeptical of fracking in shale formations with propane and other alternatives to water. Ingraffea has been studying fracturing since doing research for his doctorate in the 1970s. He finds that even modern fracking practices, using millions of gallons of water per well to yield what he says is just 10 percent to 15 percent of oil and gas out, are “very inefficient and inelegant.”

Using propane or a propane-butane combination, Ingraffea says, has a positive side in that it eliminates a key problem with water-based fracking: the disposal of vast quantities of flowback water that returns to the surface after fracking is completed and is often contaminated with things such as salts and radioactivity.

But, he added, no one has yet clearly demonstrated that fracking with propane or some of the other alternatives—such as using a nitrogen or carbon dioxide gel—can compete on economics with water. Propane, he said, “is expensive and nobody really knows how much it takes to develop a typical shale gas well with a lateral that is a mile or two long.”

Oil and gas service companies such as Halliburton and Schlumberger have thrown a lot of money and bright minds at seeking efficiencies over many years, said Ingraffea, and if there was a “silver bullet you would think those companies would have hit it very hard.”

As the Ceres report concludes:

Shale energy development highlights the fact that our water resources were already vulnerable before additional demands were introduced. Regulators, water managers and ultimately all significant economic players who rely on abundant supplies of water must double-down their efforts to better manage this limited and most precious resource.

Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.


39 Responses to Fracking Is Already Straining U.S. Water Supplies

  1. Joan Savage says:

    I’d like to see a geographer combine the EPA’s map of the oil and gas locations (in their report) with the USGS national map of aquifers. That might be doable in the USGS’s National Map, but I haven’t developed the skill for it.

    Short link to the USGS map of aquifers:

    PS The article has a failed link to the Groundwater Protection Council. Finding independently, it has some materials, but not definitively your source.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    As Joan noted, water consumption is a big issue, but so are toxic chemical additions to deep aquifers. We don’t know the precise consequences, but the news is certain to be bad.

    Thanks, Tom, for the 3 million gallons per well figure. Meanwhile, “greens” are screaming about the water required to clean solar panels in the Mojave. It was insignificant, but the solar companies switched to dry and recycled water cleaning anyway, all over a non issue. It’s because the oil companies control the media.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    Mike, I think we have to give Tom Kenworthy the credit for a focus on water consumption. I share your concern about contaminated water. The aquifer map is a cue for either issue.

    Even so, that map doesn’t include some regions where fracking makes heavy use of surface water, slurping up streams and lakes. That’s the risk in the Northeast, where aquifers are few and surface water appears bountiful, until it is contaminated.

    My masters paper was on the effects of oil and gas production brine on a forested ecosystem; I focused on what comes up from the geologic formations, which is often toxic and not uncommonly radioactive, even without considering the toxicity of substances used in injection.

  4. Mark K says:

    I’m surprised no mention was made of using evaporators to separate the water from the contaminants. It’s an extra expense, but it works.

  5. Mark K says:

    Instead of flaring the methane, you use it to distill the water.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You’d do it if you cared about other people and wanted to cut down on pollution, but the only concern for capitalists is profit maximisation.

  7. Mark K says:

    We’ll have to require it.
    Got that, EPA?

  8. RHytonen says:

    “all significant economic players who rely on abundant supplies of water must double-down their efforts to better manage this limited and most precious resource.”(-Frackers)

    Say, WHAT??!!!

    WE pay, by absolutely EVENTUALLY, dying off of thirst?
    -and/or in the meantime, doubling, tripling, quadrupling, our already high water bills AND frequent watering BANS (so our food crops die,)

    so THEY can make PROFITS shipping our already scarce (“threatened, limited”) fossil fuel energy resources abroad;

    where they bring higher prices (and thereby increase OURS?)

    Does anyone realize just how MUCH water these frackers use? 20 MILLION GALLONS -PER DAY- in the Marcellus ALONE!


  9. Chris Lyon says:

    But we can keep our golf courses which consume 1,752,000,000,000 gallons of water annually. That’s 1.7 TRILLION gallons of water laced with fertilizers and chemicals that do, without question, seep into the water table. For entertainment.

    At least with fracking you can actually treat the water and most of it CAN goes back to the water cycle without causing a problem.

  10. Joan Savage says:

    It’s interesting. Do a scoping study, ok?

    Here’s what came to mind.

    Evaporating frack water adds to the methane’s carbon footprint, just like tar sands extraction methods that have a CO2e cost before the end product’s consumer CO2.

    Fracking a single well takes 3 to 5 days (spud time). During that brief interval fracking uses 2.4 to 7.8 million gallons of water. In some states the frack water sits in an open lagoon, evaporating and/or getting diluted with rain water, or leaking, while in others the frack water is required to be stored in an enclosed system until it can be trucked off-site.

    Cracking frack water with evaporation would have to be a contained process as some of the components are volatiles.

    Flared well-head methane is impure stuff. It hasn’t been processed to get rid of radon, etc. A lot of the flaring is at oil wells to get gas out of the way to get to the oil. I don’t know how much flaring one could expect to get from a completed gas well, although the flaring is usually to get rid of pressure, so it is done quickly, and it might be hard to estimate.

    If the new well supplies the methane to evaporate the 2.4 to 7.8 million gallons of water that it took to frack it, that would be a lot of BTUs and a lot of equipment, not to mention dealing with local fog and cloud formation or operating a condenser.

    How many BTUs would it take to crack/evaporate 7.8 million gallons that might have a variable start temperature?

    Moreover, how many days of operating an evaporator, separator, and condenser?

    Then there’s the hazwaste steps, isolation of the hazwaste, and decontamination of equipment before moving off site, etc.

    This looks like one of those word problems to put on an comp exam in a graduate course.

    Have fun..I did!

    Source of fracking spud time, Page 5-94 in:

  11. Joan Savage says:

    Shell’s Newswire link did not say anything remotely like, “goes back to the water cycle without causing a problem.”

    What it described instead was Shell paying for treated sewage waste water:

    “Shell will pipe its share of the water from the (municipal sewage) plant to its natural gas operations some 48 kilometres to the west of Dawson Creek where the company operates the prolific Groundbirch gas field.”

    The disposal of Shell’s gasfield’s waste water is described as, “Currently recycling approximately 75 percent of the water it produces, the company’s goal is to minimize and virtually eliminate the amount of fresh water it uses in drilling and completions.”

    So, regardless of its source of water, Shell doesn’t recycle a quarter of its waste water.
    And the other three-quarters of its water use is supposedly on a perpetual tread-mill of reuse, which does not mean that the water is qualified to return to a natural “water cycle without causing a problem.”

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Yes, Joan, a litany of problems, undoubtedly. But, otherwise, OK?

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Not for ‘entertainment’. For profit, and for ‘..a good walk spoiled’.

  14. Joan Savage says:

    Dear Mulga, You jest?

    I thought I was hinting at a little corner of hell, with its millions of BTUs of heat, the sound of pumps going day and night, and workers in moon-suits carrying vessels of toxic waste to god-knows-where.

  15. Uneeda Betaword says:

    Surely you see that it makes no sense and is confusing to refer to enviros as “greens” (even with the quote marks) when they’re not acting environmentally responsibly and in view of the fact that the Green Party is known as Greens. By doing so you perpetuate the domination of the Dem/Repub duopoloy the majority of which supports this insanity of frackng.

  16. I read recently that a county in New Mexico — epicenter of the Great Western Drought — has banned fracking because it uses too much water. Good idea.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Yes, Joan-I jest. Sorry that I was too opaque. Your contributions are heavy with information, and a real education. Mine are often a little light weight.

  18. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Can you imagine how ferociously some of our rural communities are fighting the advent of fracking when they are already back in drought? And when nobody has forgotten the last one? Which was an absolute shocker even by Aussie standards, ME

  19. Mike Roddy says:

    Joan and Mulga,

    I’ve learned plenty from both of you, thanks.

  20. MH says:

    There are limited clean water supplies in the world and a lot of demands on those water supplies. Using them to frack, particularly in areas where there is drought is stupid. Do we need energy more than we need clean water? The answer is no. Fracking should be banned in those areas for that reason alone.

  21. Joan Savage says:

    Mike and Mulga,

    Back to you with gratitude for your frequent insight and challenges.

    I deserved Mulga’s poke.

    It’s a scientist’s habit, some might say failing, to lay out information and see if the reader/listener comes to the same conclusion.

    It is something I have to un-learn when lobbying, which requires nearly the reverse. State a conclusion, and see if it’s necessary to defend it with facts..
    O well!

  22. Scott Cannon says:

    Frack water cannot be returned to the ecosystem. There is no technology as of yet to clean it enough for drinking standards. Some gets recycled to use in other frack jobs and most ends up in injection pits.

  23. Scott Cannon says:

    In addition, 20 to 80% of the 5 million or so gallons used to frack a well stays in the ground, forever.

  24. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    And at the southern end of Illinois, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, an area that has been economically depressed for decades, the local townsfolk seem to be welcoming the frackers with open arms in hopes of an economic boom. What would Bucky Fuller think if he were alive today?

    And further north in Springfield, the state capital, politicians who are mostly Democrats seem to be equally in favor of allowing the frackers in. Springfield – within sight of where a young Abe Lincoln first rose to tell his fellows legislators, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” What would Honest Abe think if he were alive today.

  25. Fracking is an interesting policy challenge. It has a strong local component because of water. And it’s a variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma: if all hold out, the common good is served and everyone remains on equal footing, but if a few jump ahead and sign the leases, then they benefit disproportionately, force all to bear some burden, and cut them off from those benefits.

    On the national level, it has boosted natural gas production tremendously, and has accelerated the closing of many coal plants. There’s some evidence that poor methane capture in some places (Colorado, North Dakota–which is mostly about oil, actually) means that, from a climate standpoint, NG might not be much of an improvement over coal. And a lot of the displaced coal is being shipped overseas–although it still is displacing coal that would have come from elsewhere.

    Without doubt its combustion emits about 50% of the CO2 of coal. So that’s a step in the right direction. Also, it presents virtually none of the so-called criteria pollutants, no soot, doesn’t require mining (let alone mountaintop removal), and is excellent at matching up with intermittent renewable generation.

    I worry about the demonization of fracking. As a tactic to retard our continued expansion of fossil fuel use, it has value. But since NG is so much better than coal on so many levels, it’s hard to argue to many that we shouldn’t be expanding its use to displace coal. In most ways, fracking is no different from conventional gas production, except the amount of water used. This is a problem that’s being worked on and will be largely solved.

    Then what? Then we have a plentiful, convenient fossil fuel for at least two decades, and probably a lot more. This is not a good thing for the climate. It will tend to retard efficiency and renewable development, and certainly will roadblock the WW2-style deployment of those two technologies that I believe is needed to avert the worst.

    So focusing on fracking as evil incarnate just seems like a bad strategy, because all the tactical value of that approach is ephemeral and weak. That’s sort of the story of the climate problem in a perverse and upside-down way: the glamor of the expedient triumphs over the dull hard work of the permanent.

    The better idea is to regulate the crap out of fracking, rather than run around with our hands up in the air wailing about how awful it is.

  26. Mike Roddy says:

    You are contradicting yourself, Change. If fugitive methane emissions do in fact result in comparable emissions, there is little point from a climate perspective in enabling fracked gas.

    It’s also questionable whether regulation will succeed. Well casing design results in a 50% failure ratre over time (google Fox’s The Sky is Pink). As far as chemical disclosures and regulations, current policy differs little from the Cheney era. Obama’s recent noises about regulation are just that. The gas companies, headed by Exxon, Conoco Phillips, and Koch, won’t allow Congress to restrain them.

    We need to focus on solar and wind, and leapfrog all fossil fuel electricity sources.

  27. That’s the big if. The EPA is not on board yet. The science is weak as of today. And it can’t be argued that gas is not better than coal in every other respect.

    I agree that “We need to focus on solar and wind, and leapfrog all fossil fuel electricity sources.” The challenge is, how, especially in light of this very seductive resource?

    A lot of the claims made by the extreme anti-fracking crowd come across as tendentious, before-the-fact, cherry-picked, and distorted, in a way that parallels how climate deniers argue from their conclusion (i.e., they don’t like it and don’t want to accept it). That’s not persuasive, or ought not to be. It takes science.

    It’s a fine line I’m walking here, and I think I’m being perceived as “pro” fracking. I’m not. I’m saying we have bigger fish to fry, and more effective ways of doing it. If we put our passion into anti-fracking sentiment, we are lost, because the methane and water problems are mitigable to a large extent, and are being worked on.

    I think we have to imagine what would convince Sec of Energy Moniz that he’s wrong. How would we do that? I suppose the larger answer is to elect someone who shares the POV that fracking is evil. Hopefully that person would have a sense of perspective, and the rest of his or her perceptual package was thought through.

    Using fracking as the tip of our spear seems misguided to me. The problem is too much GHG production. The answer is moving our economy off of fossils qua fossils, and not focusing on the secondary issue of fracking. If we win the fossils argument, fracking takes care of itself.

  28. Leif says:

    Indeed Mike. If the ability to pollute the commons for profit was eliminated, Green solutions become far less expensive than the best fossil fuel even today. “We the People” pay every day the hidden costs in poor health, weather extreme disasters, food shortages, displace populations, species loss and so much more that just increases the bottom line of the greediest among humanity. They in turn use that blood money to perpetuate that exploitation to unimaginable heights.

    All as the “winners” cry, “it is not a problem.”

    Tax rebellion anyone?

  29. You are most inaccurate in your assessment of what is going on in southern Illinois. There are, of course, “locals” who are enthusiastic about fracking, and these would be those directly involved in the oil and gas business, truckers, trade unions, and those who made money off leases. SAFE (Southern Illinoisans against Fracking our Environment) has been very actively trying to educate our corrupted legislators because they know very little about fracking. Turns out they really do not want to become educated. The campaign contributions are pouring in from out of state, and if you thought federal elected officials were raking in the dough, you would be shocked at the amounts coming in here from fracking.

    I have done quite a lot of work investigating these finances, some of which can be seen at this link (with regard to the main sponsor, Rep. John Bradley of Marion, IL):

    I have found at least $160,000 to Bradley, and there are many more coming in to IL-AFP backed Forby.

    What is most disturbing about analyzing the contributions was the fact that so very, very little comes in from ordinary citizens.

    Local citizens are outraged and in despair about the passage of the regulatory bill — they fought long and hard for a moratorium.

    They will continue all legal measures against this regulatory bill.

    btw, the NRDC colluded with the pro-fracking politicians to pass the regulatory bill. The NRDC has become a pariah. The Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club was playing along until native daughter Sandra Steingraber heard about it. Her testimony before the IL chamber put John Bradley to shame.

    Does it matter to anyone that the oil industry wants to frack on top of the worst seismic zone in the Midwest or get their hands on permits to frack in the Shawnee National Forest, home to the endangered American eagle?

    It’s not bad enough that the coal companies devastated all the farm land down here in southern Illinois — now they have to ruin the water supply, too?

    The millions that are spent on fracking should be spent on solar and wind power instead.

  30. Mark K says:

    We the people pay subsidies.

  31. Kelli says:

    Do these frackers realize the reason the middle east is a desert?

  32. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    One of the prime purposes behind the fracking catastrophe is to derail and delay renewables. Of course the Right enjoy the profits and the exercise of their Divine Right to befoul and destroy anything they wish (it feeds their Messianic streak), but the drive to destroy renewables as a symbol of ‘the Left’ is paramount. Just at the moment in this sad, pathetic, benighted land, the new generation of hard Right state regimes have, at last, followed the exhortations of Rightwing propagandists, and turned their attention to destroying National Parks by allowing logging, shooting by blood-crazed idiots, grazing by cattle and extensive tourist development. The next step, urged for decades by hard Right ideologues, is, of course, privatisation. In the face of the catastrophe wrought by the imposition on humanity of the Right’s anti-life psychology, the reaction, as always (these are, after all, reactionaries)grows ever more vicious. Reflection, learning from experience, recognising one’s limitations, respect for other opinions, the capacity to compromise etc, are all utterly alien to these creatures.

  33. Mary says:

    “industry’s water use is small when compared to other industrial and recreational activities.” What is not mentioned is that most industrial activities and almost all recreational activities do not consume water, water is still evaporated or returned to the water cycle…Fracking destroys water.

  34. Mary says:

    I have always believed that fracking exacerbates the droughts, if it doesn’t down right cause them in some places as the water is taken out of the rain cycle from fracking.

  35. Itachee says:

    In California fracking is a hot topic right now due to the immense oil and gas reserves identified in the Monterrey Shale formation that underlies most of the San Joaquin Valley with is dominated by irrigated agriculture. So the amount of water needed for fracked wells is a hot button issue.

    The early part of the article states “Every fracking job requires 2 million to 4 million gallons of water, according to the Groundwater Protection Council. But it is important to put that in perspective as it relates to San Joaquin Valley irrigated ag where we measure water use in acre-feet no gallons. Consider that 1 acre foot is 325,850 gallons or put another way 1 million gallons is about 3 acred feet. Now consider that table, raisin and wine grapes commonly grown in the Valley require 3 acre feet per acre per year. If one uses the mid range frack water demand cited (3 million gallons) that is equal to the annual irrigation water requirement of just 3 acres of grapes. And historic practice in the Monterrey Shale show 1 frack well fracks an area of at least 40 to 60 acres and lasts years. So here any way water use for tracking pales in comparison to that used by irrigated ag.

  36. Joan Savage says:

    Mark K,

    Bear in mind that the Pennsylvania process relied on taking 10% of the water to injection wells in Ohio.

    Since that article was written in 2011, the injections near Youngstown, Ohio were associated with earthquakes.