According to a new study released by the U.S. Geological Survey, the amount of water used in controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing — better known as fracking — is on the rise.
Released Tuesday, the study found that a horizontal natural gas well in 2014 used 28 times more water than a similar natural gas well in 2000, while an oil well used 22 times as much water. But water use also varies widely across the industry, with operations using anywhere from 2,600 gallons to as much as 9.7 million gallons per well.
“Hydraulic fracturing is not the same everywhere, and that’s reflected in the water use,” Tanya Gallegos, USGS research engineer and the study’s lead author, told ThinkProgress. “There’s quite a bit of variability throughout the United States.”
The study builds off of an earlier survey conducted by the USGS, which looked at data from millions of wells drilled across the country between 1947 and 2010. Gallegos wanted not only to update the findings of that study, but also expand it by looking at how water use in fracking operations might vary from watershed to watershed.
“Water use is complex, and it’s not a one-size fits all,” Gallegos said. “There are a lot of different considerations that could influence water use.”
Overall, Gallegos said, this recent study found that horizontal wells — wells that are drilled vertically and then parallel to the surface — tend to use much more water than directional or vertical wells. The USGS also found that that water use was especially high in areas with known shale gas reservoirs, like the Eagle Ford Formation in Texas.
The study also found that the number of horizontal wells drilled in the United States has begun to exceed the number of vertical wells — in 2014, only 42 percent of newly drilled wells across the country were vertical.
The USGS researchers didn’t look at how water use in fracking operations compared to water availability in the area, but as Climate Central points out, many of the most water-intensive operations — those in Texas or in the Great Plains — tend to be located in relatively arid areas.
In some cases, however, natural gas production has actually led to a decrease in overall water use, as natural-gas fired electricity uses less water than coal, making up for the amount of water needed to obtain the natural gas through fracking. “In terms of water quantity, fracking consumes a relatively insignificant volume of water compared to that required to cool power plants: for the 10 states that fracked the most shale gas wells in 2012, average water consumption for cooling power plants per cubic foot of natural gas burned was 30 times greater than the water consumed for fracking per cubic foot of shale gas,” Climate Central wrote in a recent report about water consumption and natural gas production.
Still, fracking’s large water footprint has become a point of criticism for those skeptical of the practice, especially in drought-ridden California, which reportedly used 70 million gallons of water for fracking in 2014. As Patrick Sullivan, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity and Californians Against Fracking told ThinkProgress, that water “most likely cannot be put back into the water cycle.”
“I know there are places in the Central Valley where the ground is literally sinking because so much groundwater is being pumped out,” Sullivan said. “It is inexcusable that we are continuing to use this precious water for fracking … we’ve got to protect our water supply in the state; we’re running dry.”
But Gallegos argues that because water use is so variable across fracking operations, it’s difficult to make overarching claims about the industry’s water footprint, even in a single state. She hopes that the USGS data provide the public with better information and lead to more productive conversations about fracking and water use in the United States.
“This information could be used to highlight that there are differences, and we have to be careful about when we’re making comparisons between one region to another and one operation to another,” she said. “Hopefully this will provide us with some of the background information that might be useful for asking the right questions.”