As Drought Hits, Fracking Poses Threat to Water Supply

Yves here. It’s striking how, in various discussions of resources constraints, potable water is almost never on the list. Yet on current trajectories it’s the one where we run into limits first, around 2050. And although some people like to point to desalination or reuse as remedies, those take energy, and energy is another scarce resource. Thus in general, the first line of defense is not newer better technology, but conservation.

So I’ve also been surprised at how long it has taken to point out one of the big costs of fracking: the large amounts of water it consumes and contaminates.

By Nick Cunningham, a Washington DC-based writer on energy and environmental issues. You can follow him on twitter at @nickcunningham1. Originally published at OilPrice

A new report finds that hydraulic fracturing is posing a growing risk to water supplies in several regions around the country. Only, instead of groundwater contamination that so often makes the headlines, it is from the massive consumption of fresh water in water-parched areas like Texas, Colorado, and California. Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) requires millions of gallons of water to frack single well, and in places that are suffering epic droughts, fracking is increasingly competing for access to water with other uses.

The report, “Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Stress,” comes from Ceres, a network of investors, companies, and public interest groups that pushes investor money towards sustainable practices. Ceres finds that about three-quarters of all the 39,294 wells hydraulically fractured between January 2011 and May 2013 (the time period they studied) have occurred in water scarce areas, and more than half in areas suffering from drought.

Nowhere is the nexus of fracking and water starker than in the Eagle Ford Shale in south Texas, which produces over 1.2 million barrels of oil and 6 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. The Eagle Ford suffers from the biggest water challenges out of any shale play in the United States. It has the highest water consumption out of any other shale formation in the country right now. Over 90% of the water used in the affected counties comes from groundwater, as opposed to surface water, contributing to the depletion of aquifers.

The report finds that, “Texas is ground zero for water sourcing risks due to intense shale energy production in recent years.” And the problem of water use is compounded by the fact that Texas has been suffering from several years of meager rainfall. As Ceres notes, “over two-thirds of Texas continues to experience drought conditions, key groundwater aquifers are under stress and the state’s population is growing.”

Agriculture and the consumption of water in cities remain the largest sources of water consumption, much more than fracking, but drilling for oil and gas often occur in small communities in dry areas, and thus have an outsized influence over the consumption pattern of water. Competing interests, such as cattle ranching, farming, other industry, and residential use, are finding water more and more a cherished commodity to come by. There are 29 communities in Texas with a presence of oil and gas drilling that are in danger of running out of water within days.

Ceres also looked at individual companies with the most exposure to water sourcing risk. For example, Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC) leads the pack with more than 70% of its wells located in high water stress areas. Anadarko used over six billion gallons of water over the study period. Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK) was the biggest user of water out of all the operators measured in the report, but with much of its drilling operations focused in the relatively wet Marcellus Shale, its risk exposure wasn’t as bad as Anadarko’s. The report offers a warning to investors: should these companies be cut off from access to water due to inadequate water supply or water restrictions by local governments, their operations – and therefore their profitability – could be put at risk.

The Ceres report provides a series of recommendations which include recycling of water used during fracking (a practice already becoming more commonplace among drillers); using wastewater or brackish water; disclosing more information, not only on water use from the company perspective, but also on water availability and requirements for the basin as a whole; and tougher regulations governing the use of water in dry regions.

The competition between water use for fracking and other uses is not new, particularly in dry areas, but with oil and gas production in Texas expected to double over the next five years, the issue will only grow in its importance.

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  1. ChrisCairns

    Seeing it here in Oz too, although it has been raining in Cairns for 2 weeks, so no shortage here.

    Property rights or a lack of are the issue in many areas of Australia. Our governments have introduced legislation at the State and Federal level which allow companies to drill on your land and coal seam gas, methane, is their lucre. And fracking is their method, destroying the water table and your land. Land that you thought was yours. Well, that was a wrong assumption, what made you think that? You only own the top inch. Everything below is the property of governments and they are free to assign mining rights to whoever fronts up with the money. Oh yes, and those important jobs and business investment, contribution to GDP etc…..

    You can’t drink oil or breathe gas. I’m going to be a grandfather for the first time in coming week. I cry for the future he is born into.

  2. Steve H.

    Fracking dumps hazardous materials into groundwater supplies.

    When I got my Environmental Science degree, my specialties were Hazardous Materials and Water Resources. When I moved on to further careers, I still sent nickels to Nature Conservancy and NRDC for doing the good work. Then I read these: {Cached copy}

    I now send my nickels to Naked Capitalism.

    1. Carla

      Good idea. I’m going to send some nickels to NC right now. Yves, Lambert, et al deserve an early Valentine.

  3. Moneta

    The way our economic world is set up, it generally does not make sense for countries to practice conservation. Energy is ultimate power. If you do not use it, somebody else will and this will give them some relative power.

    I can’t for the life of me understand why Norway would extract more than it needs and grow a sovereign fund which will probably get devalued over time thanks to a larger than 35% weight in bonds. Why not keep the oil underground for posterity? Maybe they need the jobs now, maybe they know that if they do not drill, somebody else will.

    But over the long term, will tickers win over the resource? Nobody cares about the long-term.

    1. Bridget

      That’s how I feel about US massive coal reserves. To the extent that coal mining is stopped today, it will be available for our descendants if they need it .

    2. Francois T

      “Energy is ultimate power.”
      The ultimate delusion if ever there was one. To quote Gwynne Dyer in his excellent book “Climate Wars” “drinking water is a non-negotiable activity”.

      Make your people thirsty and your power as a government shall be VERY short lived. Just ask Al-Assad, who’s demise is only a matter of time.

  4. Moneta

    Our economic model is based on the concept of hit and runs where you can go back to your haven and enjoy your loot without having to see the mess you made.

    However, it is getting increasingly harder to find that haven.

  5. Bernard

    yes i was always astounded how polluting our groundwater via fracking was considered okay.
    short term greed for long term polluted groundwater.
    my reading of American history seems to show how short sighted this form of capitalism is. from mining pollution to water fracking pollution and so on.

  6. TomDority

    I recall reading, some twenty five years ago, that the USA and Mexico had a water treaty that required enough water to cross the boarder into Mexico from the (Colorado River?). I read that the USA was in violation of this treaty because we were using so much of that resource that the river naver made it to the ocean down in Mexico. Part of the reason was the agricultural method where land was leveled to such a degree that irrigation was simply to flood the field to an inch or less. Of course, this method led to immense evaporation and the salination of the soil – imagine that — for short term gain of profits we are salting our own soil – Now, of course,,, for short term gain we not only salt our soil….(because we are such advanced and learned people now – lol) we use other man made toxins to effectively salt our planet. Add to that, we deem ourselves to be the pinnacle of life form on this planet – to which I say, we have deluded ourselves collectively into believing we are not at the pinnacle of stupidity. When mother nature laughs we shall all cry our salted tears.

  7. redleg

    Groundwater depletion has always been one of the two biggest problems posed to the environment by fracking (the other is backflow water).
    Surface water should be used by frackers if fracking is to be done at all.

  8. Ishmael

    Water is a major problem in the US and I sited it as a limiting factor in the US on this site a couple days ago. Fracing also uses a lot of water; however, let us look at fracing and groundwater.

    Most ground water is only a few hundred feet below the surface but fracing occurs several thousand feet below the surface. The well is drilled several feet down and then drilled horizontally where it is fraced. Casing is cemented into the well for the first let us say 800 feet. This is done to protect the ground water. Now if there is a poor cementing job of the casing the water table is going to become polluted even if the well is not fraced. The reason for this is while the well is being drilled, drilling fluids are pumped down the drill string and up the outside of the drill string until it hits the casing and the drilling fluids are suppose to flow between the casing and the drill string. These fluids contain various substances to carry around rock from the drill bit and lubricate the hole. If the casing is not cemented in properly then this fluid will flow into the water table.

    Wells have been drilled for over a 100 years and the process I described has been used for the last 40. This protects the ground water. It is not fracing that contaminates the ground water, but a poor cement job of the casing. It is unfortunate that this happens and various down hole tools are used to ensure a proper cement job but it does happen sometimes. In all likelyhood it is not the fracing fluids which are contaminating the ground water but the drilling fluids.

    1. kimyo

      your assumption that the only way fracking fluids contaminate ground water is via a faulty cement job is easily disproven – for example in colorado, during the flooding, upended/submerged storage tanks everywhere:

      Shocking photos and an update from the Colorado fracking flood zone

      you’ll say the following is not fracking related, and technically you’d be right. but, your focus is way too narrow. zoom out a bit: companies store large quantities of toxic chemicals used in energy production aboveground, right next to the source of drinking water for millions of people.

      Several schools in the Charleston, W.Va. area have dismissed students amid ongoing concerns over water quality, nearly a month after a massive chemical spill in the Elk River.

      Students at Riverside High School in Belle were sent home early on Wednesday, according to the Wall Street Journal. Several students reported burning sensations in their noses and eyes and two people were sent to a local hospital, including one teacher who fainted. A nearby elementary school was also closed early on Wednesday.

      Students’ reported symptoms are consistent with exposure to 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol, or MCHM, which was released in the Jan. 9 spill and contaminated the drinking water for about 300,000 residents for over a week.

      lastly, you dishonor the name ishmael. he’d never argue in favor of trading tomorrow’s clean water for a few barrels of oil today.

  9. Ishmael

    It should be noted that the majority of these fluids are retrieved and recycled – both drilling fluids and fracing fluids. All of these well sites have state and federal inspectors all over them to make sure they are drilled without impacting the environment!

    1. hyperpolarizer

      I respectfully disagree. Fluids are emphatically not recovered, but are left underground, to migrate who knows where? Federal inspection? It hardly exists these days.

      1. redleg

        Actually, fluids are removed during the fracking process . Dissolving the salt in the rock is one of the main ways of increasing the fluid pathways in the rock. Salt water is one of the nasty problems with well development even, if a oil/gas well is never fracked.

  10. Ishmael

    Oh, and I meant to say, most wells are drilled several thousand feet down not several feet down.

    I wish to also point out that due to heat and pressure any water molecules encountered at this depth are not in liquid form but gas. It should also be noted that at this depth much of this water is also salt water and not drinkable.

    1. Carol Sterritt

      I am not sure I get your point. The big problem is that at whatever level the aquifers holding drinking and irrigation water for the region happen to be at, there is the fracking equipment, pipes and wells going down, and they have to go down by and around and past the aquifers. The leaks occur, and then one day you can light your kitchen faucet’s water flow with a match. Entire towns in Texas are now boarding up their homes and businesses, due to the fact that ten to fifteen years ago, the communities let the Fracking Operations come in.

      Watch this video for more information, which includes how the roads and the highways being broken apart by heavy truck traffic, tanks for the operations that spill toxins and yet must be emptied every day, etc. And all that is in addition to what the fracking wells themselves do. Like what the mayor of Dish Texas says, “At worst, you have people whose drinking water wells are destroyed.” :

    2. Carol Sterritt

      There is also a big difference between vertical fracking and horizontal fracking. Vertical has proven to be far less disruptive than horizontal, but these days, most of what is being done is horizontal.

  11. different clue

    I notice that certain depraved humanoids at Angry Bear have at least twice suggested mining the Great Lakes for water and pipelining the mined water to the dry west. I think the attempt might lead to civil insurrection or even Civil War.

    1. F. Beard

      Dares a lot of water in the Great Lakes! Why not use it?

      But there is also a lot of fresh water under the Oceans:

      Look. With a sane, ethical money creation there’s still plenty enough for all. God SHALL NOT let resource depletion be an excuse for wickedness IF we REPENT, I’d bet. But if we don’t REPENT then no amount of resources shall prove adequate, I’d also bet:

      And you, son of man, say to your fellow citizens, ‘The righteousness of a righteous man will not deliver him in the day of his transgression, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he will not stumble because of it in the day when he turns from his wickedness; whereas a righteous man will not be able to live by his righteousness on the day when he commits sin.’ Ezekiel 33:12

      But learn or burn. It’s does not take many to restart the human race – see Noah and his family.

      1. different clue

        Because it is fossil water, left over from the last glacial icesheet meltoff. Very little water goes into and out of the lakes. The amount flowing out of Lake Ontario is all that remains of what goes into the Great Lakes after upstream uses. And every bit of it is used already right where it is. Either to water people and plants/crops or to grow the fish which underlie the $7 billion fishing industry or to float the ships which carry commerce. That’s why.
        Do you really think the people of Great Lakestan will tolerate the unsustainable mining of their non-renewable open air fossil water to ship it to water wasters who will only use it to grow even more population and power to use to extort all the water from the Mississippi Basin States and all the Pacific Coastal States and Provinces after that?
        Such an attempt will lead to civil unrest or Civil War, as I have already mentioned.

        1. Nathanael

          The Great Lakes Compact was already formed between the states and provinces of the Great Lakes. There is a short list of permitted extractions from the basin (mostly for the weirdness around Chicago), and NO MORE is permitted. Any further attempts require the agreement of every single signatory of the Great Lakes Compact, and a violation can be enforced by draconian measures.

          So yeah. We’re already defending our water supplies. If y’all try to steal it, we won’t let you.

        2. F. Beard

          Ah, the Mississippi!

          So what justification is there for allowing all that fresh water to drain into the Gulf of Mexico?

        1. F. Beard

          “Go forth and multiply” is still operative as far as I know and the population hysterics have been consistently wrong for a couple of centuries now.

          1. Optimader

            How long have GMO crops and made made radioactive elements been around Beard?” Previous results are not an indication of future performance.” There is no moral victory to exceeding the natural population carry capacity of any geography.

    2. Klassy

      First nations should have some say in it. Not that they ever have.
      They’re going to come for it some day. It’s a lot of water. If you emptied out Superior you could cover the land in the western hemisphere in a foot of water or so.
      So, we’ll get the “plenty of water there for everyone” folks. They are of the same breed that says “The earth’s not overcrowded. You could fit everyone in Florida!”.

      1. F. Beard

        Yes, but Progressives are nothing if not expedient. See the Fed and government deposit insurance.

  12. Waking Up

    An increased demand on water resources from hydraulic fracturing in California and Colorado put further stress on the Colorado River which supplies all of the basin states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. It has a multiplier effect.

  13. just me

    Ceres also looked at individual companies with the most exposure to water sourcing risk. For example, Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC) leads the pack with more than 70% of its wells located in high water stress areas. Anadarko used over six billion gallons of water over the study period.

    Anadarko, Anadarko… I remember. They’re one of the energy companies that use military psyops to deal with the “insurgency” of citizens who oppose their fracking and drilling. From a recording at a 2011 industry conference in Houston:

    Matt Carmichael, manager of external affairs for Anadarko Petroleum, speaking on topic “Understanding How Unconventional Oil & Gas Operators are Developing a Comprehensive Media Relations Strategy to Engage Stakeholders and Educate the Public”:

    So, again this is all industry stuff. Let’s talk about this plan and how we executed our media plan. If you’re a PR representative in this industry in this room today, I recommend you do three things. These are three things that I’ve read recently that are pretty [word unclear]. Download the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual (audience reaction), because we are dealing with an insurgency. There’s a lot of good lessons in there, and coming from a military background I’ve found the insight in that extremely remarkable. With that said, there’s a course provided by Harvard and MIT twice a year. It’s called “Dealing with an Angry Public.” Take that course, and tie that to the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual is that a lot of the officers in our military are attending this course. It gives you the tools, it gives you the media tools on how to deal with a lot of the controversy that we as an industry are dealing with. And third, thirdly, I have a copy of Rumsfeld Rules, if you’re all familiar with Donald Rumsfeld, that’s kind of my Bible by the way I operate.

    h/t Harry Shearer, who covered this on Le Show last year (scroll up at link to earlier comment).

    1. Nathanael

      Given that the Counterinsurgency procedures have *never worked for the Army*, they ain’t going to work for Anadarko either. It is nice to see that our enemies are copying failed strategies which fail.

  14. Ray Duray

    I was surprised to learn that while fracking does use a lot of water, it uses significantly less water than a traditional coal fired power plant that allows the steam coming off the turbines to escape into the atmosphere. By a factor of about 1 to 33 per unit of electricity generated according to this brief article about the issue:

    So fracked gas may be bad when it comes to water, but coal is far, far worse. Here’s what Wikipedia has on the Four Corners Coal Plant in New Mexico, a region of serious drought: “The station is cooled using water from Morgan Lake, which is man-made and is replenished by about 28 million gallons of water each day from the San Juan River. ”

    A natural gas/oil well would typically consume, say, 6,000,000 gallons of water as a one shot deal and then the well would produce for a few years. In one year’s time, the Four Corners Coal Plant will have removed (28MM x 365) or about 10,220,000,000 gallons from the San Juan River. A bigger number, eh? :)

    The San Juan River is one of the feeders of the Lake Powell/Lake Mead complex providing water to about 30,000,000 people in the Southwest.

    28MM/gal/day is about equivalent to 324 cubic feet per second. To be continued….

    1. Ray Duray

      324 CFS is a pretty big demand on the San Juan River. Here’s info on its current flow:

      The San Juan is providing 542 CFS to Lake Powell as of three days hence. We have reached the age of limits. We can have drinking water in the Southwest, or we can have power. What we’re probably going to have in the future is not quite enough of either for the ever-expanding population of the region.

      By the way, Lake Powell is currently just over 40% of capacity.

    2. different clue

      That water doesn’t disappear under the ground or come out full of frackarcinogens. That water comes out as steam and goes right back into the earth-air water cycle.

      1. Ray Duray

        Yes, you’re right of course, the steam coming off an old-fashioned coal generation plant becomes an infinitesimally small part of the hydrologic cycle.

        Another interesting factoid about the great Colorado River reservoirs: Each of them annually loses about 13 feet of elevation to evaporation.

        Here’s an interesting infographic from the Union of Concerned Scientists on water use in the U.S.

    3. Nathanael

      The vast majority of coal burning plants are, thankfully, being shut down. It’s happening surprisingly fast. The oldest ones are going first, for the most part. The anti-mercury regulations are sufficient to knock out most of them, but frankly a bunch of the rest are simply uneconomical period.

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