ThinkProgress

Fracking is destroying U.S. water supply, warns shocking new study

The Monterey Shale formation in California, where fracking is used to extract gas and oil during one of the worst droughts in state history, March 2014. CREDIT: David McNew/Getty Images

An alarming new study reveals fracking is quite simply destroying America’s water supply.

That means we are losing potable water forever in many semi-arid regions of the country, while simultaneously producing more carbon pollution that in turn is driving ever-worsening droughts in those same regions, as fracking expert Anthony Ingraffea, a professor at Cornell University, explained to ThinkProgress.

The game-changing study from Duke University found that “from 2011 to 2016, the water use per well increased up to 770 percent.” In addition, the toxic wastewater produced in the first year of production jumped up to 1440 percent.

Previous studies suggested hydraulic fracturing does not use significantly more water than other energy sources, but those findings were based only on aggregated data from the early years of fracking,” explained co-author Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke.

“After more than a decade of fracking operation, we now have more years of data to draw upon from multiple verifiable sources,” said Vengosh. The researchers looked at data on water used — and oil, gas, and wastewater produced — for over 12,000 wells from 2011 to 2016.

Ingraffea, who was not involved in the study, explained that while first generation wells used 3 to 5 millions gallons of water, current third generation wells use 10 to 30 million gallons. Ingraffea — who worked with the fossil fuel industry for three decades and has been co-editor-in-chief of the journal Engineering Fracture Mechanics since 2005 — noted that the federal government “forecasts a million more such wells in the next 20 years.”

That would mean trillions of gallons of water used.

The Duke study warns that the water footprint of fracking could jump as much as 50-fold in some areas by 2030, “raising concerns about its sustainability, particularly in arid or semi-arid regions in western states, or other areas where groundwater supplies are stressed.”

As their analysis shows, some of the fracking sites that are seeing the biggest jump in water footprint per well — like the Permian and Eagle Ford Basins — are also located in highly water-stressed areas (see chart below).

Some of the biggest fracking sites -- like the Permian and Eagle Ford Basins -- are in highly water stressed areas. Credit: Duke University.

One key point the study makes is that, unlike other energy sources, much of the water fracking uses is essentially lost to humanity. Either the water doesn’t escape the shale formation or, when it does come back to the surface, it “is highly saline, is difficult to treat, and is often disposed through deep injection wells.”

Therefore, even though other forms of energy have a higher intensity of water use, “the permanent loss of water use for hydraulic fracturing from the hydrosphere” may still be higher.

The study also points out that the world has seen “rapidly diminishing global water resources due to population growth and climate change.”

Yet countless studies show that because the fracking process leaks so much methane —  a highly potent greenhouse gas — fracked gas isn’t a climate solution. In fact, “natural gas could warm the planet as much as coal in the short term,” one major 24-author study from June concluded. So those who continue touting fracked gas as a bridge to a low-carbon future are not keeping up with the latest science.

And so we have the tragic situation where we are using up one of our most precious non-renewable resources, water, to produce oil and gas, which worsens the stress on our water system.

As Ingraffea put it, “shale gas/oil is exchanging absurd volumes of water for absurd volumes of fossil fuels at a time where using the latter is jeopardizing the availability of the former.” At the same time, fracking “is exchanging precious volumes of water usable for drinking and farming for toxic volumes of wastewater most of which has to be transported and injected underground,” at grave risk to underground sources of drinking water. Finally, “most of what is not transported and injected stays underground, an exchange of H2O for CO2.” Therefore, almost all of what arrives at a well is forever lost to the water cycle.”

Fracking is truly a Faustian bargain.