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Nearly half of fracking happens in places short on water

By David R. Baker
San Francisco Chronicle
Hydraulic fracturing uses large amounts of pressurized water — mixed with sand and chemicals — to crack subterranean rocks and release oil or natural gas. Up to 10 million gallons of water can go into a single well. And according to a new study, it’s happening in many places where water supplies are already stretched perilously thin.

Fracking for oil and gas is a thirsty business.

Hydraulic fracturing uses large amounts of pressurized water — mixed with sand and chemicals — to crack subterranean rocks and release oil or natural gas. Up to 10 million gallons of water can go into a single well.

And according to a new study, it’s happening in many places where water supplies are already stretched perilously thin.

The study, released today by the nonprofit group Ceres, examined 25,450 fracked wells across the United States and found that 47 percent lie in areas that face high or extremely high “water stress.” In those areas, at least 80 percent of the available fresh water is already being used in homes, farms or businesses.

The numbers have big implications.

Fracking has triggered an oil and gas drilling boom across the United States, from Pennsylvania to California. But some places that have seen extensive fracking, such as west Texas and Colorado, have suffered recent droughts. Even in good years, they aren’t exactly drenched in rain.

The spread of fracking could lead to competition among drillers, farmers and homeowners, said Monika Freyman, manager of the water program at Ceres.

“It’s already starting to happen,” said Freyman, who co-wrote the report. “The companies will be able to get their water, because they can afford to pay the most. But it’s going to increase the competition and conflicts for water, especially in regions that are experiencing drought.”

Ceres works with investors and businesses to encourage sustainability, with a particular focus on climate change and water scarcity. Freyman and her colleagues used records from FracFocus, a website where oil and gas companies post information on fracked wells. They compared the location of the wells to water supply data from the World Resources Institute.

The FracFocus well records run from January of 2011 through September of 2012. During that period, 65.8 billion gallons of water were pumped underground for fracking, according to the study. And that figure — roughly equal to the amount of water 2.5 million Americans use in a year — is almost certainly an undercount. Not every oil company reports its fracking operations on FracFocus.

California, which just ended a rainy season remarkably free of rain, does not feature prominently in the Ceres report.

So far, fracking has not become as widespread here as it has in North Dakota or Texas. And California’s unique underground geology has limited the amount of water needed for fracking. Shale rocks here contain large amounts of briney water along with the oil, so pressurizing the well doesn’t take as much water pumped from the surface.

During the study period, the average fracked well in California used 166,714 gallons of water, according to Ceres.

Ceres wants the companies that engage in fracking to do a better job planning for water use and recycling, and having discussions about both with the public. Unlike many of its environmental allies, the organization does not take a position on fracking itself, pro or con.

“We really want to see better water management planning, from industry and regulators and water managers,” Freyman said. “That will start the dialogue on, ‘How are you getting your water? What are the challenges to recycling the water? What’s your community engagement on getting that water?’”

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