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

By Carolyn D. Heising
Des Moines Register
It’s no secret that hydraulic fracturing in the production of oil and natural gas uses enormous amounts of water.

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 But other nuclear plants with once-through cooling systems return 99 percent of the water withdrawn back to the water body.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.

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