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Fracking’s water use sets up fight with cities and farmers

Public Policy

It’s no secret that hydraulic fracturing in the production of oil and natural gas uses enormous amounts of water.

A single well requires between 2 and 10 million gallons of water — mixed with sand and chemicals — to crack rocks deep underground and release oil or natural gas. As a rule of thumb, it takes 1,000 truck trips to complete one hydraulically fractured well.

Since shortly after World War II, hydraulic fracturing — known as fracking — has been used in the drilling of more than 1 million wells across the United States, and with the surge in oil and gas production in recent years, that has added up to a lot of water.

Fracking is being done in places — such as Texas, Colorado, Kansas and Pennsylvania — where water resources are stretched thin due to drought.

In a recently published report on water scarcity, Ceres, a nonprofit investor group concerned about climate change, says water shortages have put the oil and gas industry on a “collision course” with municipalities and farmers. Ceres surveyed nearly 39,300 wells fracked across the country and found that 55 percent lie in areas experiencing drought. Taken together, all of the wells surveyed over a 17-month period consumed 97 billion gallons of water.

These dry numbers translate into increased pressure on the nation’s water resources that have important energy implications.

Although water use for fracking is often less than 1 or 2 percent of a state’s overall use — in fact, less than the amount of water used in electricity production and even in watering lawns — it’s at the local level in water-stressed areas where people say that fracking has already gone too far.

Energy facilities such as nuclear power plants also require large quantities of water. Nuclear plants with cooling towers consume 70 percent of the water they withdraw from a lake or river. But other nuclear plants with once-through cooling systems return 99 percent of the water withdrawn back to the water body.

Even renewable energy, like geothermal and solar, uses large amounts of water to cool equipment and to clean the collector panels.

As we’ve seen here in Iowa with corn-based ethanol production, competition for water has led to conflicts between municipalities, farmers and energy companies.

Oil and gas companies say disputes over water are being greatly magnified by those opposed to fracking. Nevertheless, water shortages are providing capital for environmentalists who maintain that praising the growth in domestic oil and gas production, as President Obama did in his State of the Union address, is ill-advised given the seriousness of climate change.

Fracking is increasing competitive pressures for water at a time when key aquifers that supply drinking water are under stress. Concerns have been raised about the possibility that fracking could contaminate aquifers. But fracking occurs below the aquifers, separated by a mile or more of impenetrable rock.

Nevertheless, the rate of groundwater depletion has increased markedly in recent years, and groundwater is being withdrawn faster than it is recharged by precipitation.

This has had many negative consequences, including land subsidence, reduced drinking-well yields, and diminished spring and stream flows. As a result, all forms of water use are facing scrutiny, fracking included.

Despite its potential impact on water supplies, fracking isn’t going away. Debates will continue over fracking, but problems with it can be lessened through water recycling and the use of non-freshwater alternatives, such as wastewater, saline water and seawater.

In fact, some drillers in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania now recycle 100 percent of their water. Also, the use of underground brackish water resources — which are flow-back during fracking — is on the rise in water-stressed areas that have seen extensive oil and gas production, such as west Texas and the high country in Colorado.

The growth in oil and gas production has been a major bright spot in the U.S. economy, but we need to think about energy solutions that increase, rather than deplete, water resources.

Nuclear power is being used to desalinate water in several Asian countries. And nuclear power has the added benefit of producing a huge amount of energy from a small amount of fuel, without contributing to global warming.

The new reality about water shortages requires a new way of thinking about fracking and other energy technologies that consume large amounts of water — recognizing the considerable benefits that energy production brings to the economy.


20 Comments on "Fracking’s water use sets up fight with cities and farmers"

  1. Plantagenet on Sun, 16th Feb 2014 11:50 pm 

    This problem is easily solved by switching to waterless fracking

  2. dsula on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 12:08 am 

    The problem could also be solved by switching to waterless drinking.

  3. Northwest Resident on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 12:15 am 

    Stuck between a rock and a hard place. They must continue to frack for oil in order to maintain the “all is well with BAU” illusion that has been carefully constructed for mass consumption, and to maintain the oil supply. But on the other hand, water is vitally important for agriculture and other not unimportant uses — like sewage, bathing and drinking. As time goes on, this conflict between fracking and water usage is only going to grow more intense and more visible. It looks to me like it is just another aspect of reality that is quickly reaching critical stage.

  4. MSN fanboy on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 12:47 am 

    One word: desalinisation. :)
    And the DOOMERS logic COLLAPSES much like their PROPHECY.(Ironic)
    A pill to hard to swallow? lol

  5. Makati1 on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 12:57 am 

    U can live without oil … Three days without water.

  6. Makati1 on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 12:59 am 

    MSN, you are full of it… MSM BS propaganda, of course. Desalinization? Why? Plenty of water if it is not wasted. Why pay the high price of desalination if you don’t have to?

    Oh, you are one of ‘them’. A greedy, get rich on the blood of others, Capitalist. Or you are an uneducated, unthinking couch potato.

  7. Davy, Hermann, MO on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 1:28 am 

    Well, lets get some priorities straight. Watering lawns..huum..or energy for our complex interconnected global economy. Yeap, I know, does not compare because fracking happens in isolated localities many of which are water stressed. Well lawn watering takes places seemingly everywhere including water stressed areas. This is finally changing in really stressed areas. Water is Energy and vise versa. They require each other. Thermo electric production will be limited in some of these water stressed areas. The same will be true for fracking. Yet, we are playing games with ourselves if we think we can navigate this predicament without all cylinders firing. Our top priority should be preparing for a soft landing. There is no managed de-growth in my view but there is something called stupid! The most important thing we can do now is not make matters worse. AGW clan members your effort to mitigate this immense problem is nil without a soft landing. Your romantic ideas of collapse and rebirth post carbon are misplaced. We are facing the most profound point in the history of modern man and for the remaining species. The remaining species are stuck in the Anthropocene they rely upon us to navigate this predicament. I do not like the rape and pillage. Yet, we are here and we need to get there. There is a path that is a lessor of two evils in my mind. We cannot forget the WMD’s, world ending nuk waste, and 1000 other poisons that must be managed in a power down.

  8. Kenz300 on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 1:59 am 

    Wind and solar require little or no water…………

    One more reason to transition to safer, cleaner and cheaper alternative energy sources.

  9. thylacine on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 2:44 am 

    I’m afraid my first reaction to those numbers was “is that all”. 2 to 10 million gallons per well is roughly equivalent to the water used annually by 14 to 70 US families (household of 4 persons).

    The article is deliberately vague about the time taken by the frackers to consume the water and expressing the quantity in gallons is clearly done to make you go “wow, what a big number”.

    I’m not sure that the amount of water being used by fracking is a valid stick with which to beat them with.

  10. Northwest Resident on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 3:38 am 

    thylacine — I’m sure that there is some exaggeration in the arguments being made about water and fracking. I think rockman already shed some light on this subject, and it didn’t seem as bad as the article portrayed. Still, with climate change coming, California and many other states experiencing drought to greater or lesser extent, there will be legitimate questions about water usage and fracking.

  11. Stilgar Wilcox on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 3:41 am 

    See how pathetic this red queen situation is as fracking increases in a last ditch desperate attempt to continue BAU? I mean there is actually someone that posted ‘desalination’ as an answer to the problem of fresh water shortages. That may be the most imbecilic comment ever uttered in the history of posts on this website or any other I’ve read going back many years to my time on TOD in regards to the topics talked about in relation to FF.

    Think about what an inane comment that is; we are always talking about declining EROEI and the problems that result from it, so to not know that desalinating hundreds and some cases thousands of miles away from the shortage will require trucking or pipelines both of which will greatly reduce EROEI to the point of being a negative ratio.

    Fanboy, spend all of next week just trying to squeeze your brain hard enough to understand what those letters represent. Do google searches, read everything you can find. Be relentless with yourself. Bang your head into the wall if necessary to break through your ignorance to achieve a platitude of understanding enough to know desalination is not the answer, but just by virtue of suggesting such an absurd idea, you have clearly indicated the desperation of the situation.

  12. Northwest Resident on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 3:53 am 

    Stilgar — I get the feeling that MSN is purposely making outlandish and idiotic comments to get a rise out of other posters. I took his posts seriously a couple of times, but since then I’ve read several other of his posts and he’s a tough cat to figure out. I get the impression he’s just goofing around and that’s his idea of a good time. He’s played both sides of the peak oil issue. Deep thought seems lacking. But yeah, that was my first thought too — do you realize how much energy (and money) you have to burn to desalinate water out in the middle of nowhere, or even right next to the ocean.

  13. tahoe1780 on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 4:05 am 


  14. meld on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 11:06 am 

    Plantagenet and MSN – you guys crack me up. Get investing, you’re sure to become multimillionaires if you put your money where your mouth is. I recommend you put all your savings into fracking, I hear there is going to be a big boom by the end of 2014…

  15. Davy, Hermann, MO on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 12:21 pm 

    @stilgar – not so fast! We should look at some way to harness the flare gas at the well head or play area. We then could use the energy to clean low quality water in the area to improve the water equation. In Bekkan area what about using the frack waste and the pockets of saline ground water in ND. I imagine the economics and environmental issues are not optimum. Then what about the waste from that recycling process. Anyway, whenever you have high quality energy disposed of as waste I would think something can be done with it locally. That Bekkan area is amazing to see at night from space. Rock are there no ideas out there for flare gas use locally around the well heads?

  16. rockman on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 1:03 pm 

    Good conversation all. Not sure how it works in other states but in Texas there is no battle for water between the frakers and the farmers/cities. Competition yes…battle no. The water used by the frackers is bought from the owner of the water. The owner could be the landowner, farmer and, in rare circumstances, a municipality. Who the owner sells water to and for how much, is up to them. If a farmer can make more money selling his water to a fracker this year than by planting his fields guess what he does? If a municipality, which owns water rights as assigned by the state, has some excess they can sell it to a farmer, fracker or anyone else they chose.

    If a company takes an oil/NG lease they only get the rights to produce oil/NG. The water rights remain with the land owner. The use of water in Texas has very little to do right or wrong…it’s a private property issue. No different than whom a person sells their house or car to. Mucho $millions have been made by water rights owners selling to frackers…just as they made $millions selling to farmers. Best story of easy money I heard was a chap with a large man-made lake on his property. Sold the water to a fracker for around $700,000. So for a couple of years (maybe less if a tropical storm blows in) he was to sit on his front porch and look at his empty lake. But if he wants to look at water for a while he can hope in his car, drive an hour to one of the big lakes on the Colorado River and rent a luxury suite at one of the local resorts.

    Some folks may feel compelled to judge who the water is sold to. But since nether the oil/NG nor the water belongs to them their opinions are rather irrelevant IMHO.

  17. rockman on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 1:13 pm 

    Davy – There are a variety of ways to utilize flared NG. But just like piping it out it still comes down to economics. There are tens of $millions in NG being flared. Which means there are $millions of potential profit to be made by utilizing it. And the oil patch lives to make profits. Which also means that if the NG is still be flared there’s no profitable way to use it or inject it for later use.

    I have one well in Texas that flares about $40 of NG daily. There’s a pipeline just 1,000′ away. I would give the NG to the pipeline for free if they would pay for the connection and meter run. But they won’t. If I were flaring $400 worth daily they would pay for the connect and pay me for the NG. The same thing as in N Dakota…economics rule.

  18. sunweb on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 2:06 pm 

    After I corner the market on water, I will next get a monopoly on air. I mean water you can last days but air we will sell at a premium to the highest bidder.
    It is just great that someone can own water. There should be a sizable tax depletion break for water owners.
    Of course, if your grandchildren live next to the water being sold and not getting any that just is the way of the world.
    Just like fracking proponents should move their children and grandchildren next to the wells so they can enjoy the true “fruits” of their families labor.

  19. rockman on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 5:08 pm 

    sunny- Actually many of the families of frackers live in the area and drink well water daily. Just like my 13 yo doaughter. Which is why oil field hands are some of the most deligent (and potentially violent) folks watching out for those who might illegally dump frac fluids on the ground. In my career I helped bust two of those “midnight haulers” as we call thoe bandits,

  20. Davy, Hermann, MO on Mon, 17th Feb 2014 8:23 pm 

    @rock – nice to know you guys self police!