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During Record Drought, Frackers Outcompete Farmers for Water Supplies

Energy

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By Emily Saari

The impacts of 2013's severe drought are apparent across the nation in forests, on farms and on once snowy peaks. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry is demanding unprecedented amounts of water for hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.

Farmer in field, Creative Commons: Neil Palmer CIAT, 2012.

Fourth-generation Colorado farmer Kent Peppler told the Associated Press (AP) that he is fallowing some of his corn fields this year because he can’t afford to irrigate the land for the full growing season, in part because deep-pocketed energy companies have driven up the price of water.

"There is a new player for water, which is oil and gas. And certainly they are in a position to pay a whole lot more than we are," Peppler said.

In a normal year, Peppler would pay anywhere from $9 to $100 for an acre-foot of water in auctions held by cities with excess supplies. But these days, energy companies are paying some cities $1,200 to $2,900 per acre-foot.

In seven states, including Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming, the vast majority of the counties where fracking is occurring are also suffering from drought, according to an AP analysis of industry-compiled fracking data and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s official drought designations.

The persistent U.S. drought wreaked havoc on American agriculture, raising food prices and forcing farmers to make record high insurance claims on lost profits for 2012.

As farmers struggle to make ends meet, limited fresh water reserves across the country are being diverted for fracking. The fossil fuel industry has identified deposits of oil and gas within shale rock formations deep underground, formerly inaccessible. In this new, "unconventional" drilling process, water mixed with sand and chemicals is injected into horizontal wells running through the shale. The injection cracks apart the rock, releasing the oil and gas and allowing it to rise to the surface for extraction.

Fracking requires enormous quantities of water. Estimates put water usage at between 3 and 5 million gallons per fracking of a single well, and each well can be fracked several times.

According to information accessed in 2012 from industry-backed FracFocus, a national fracking chemical registry managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, states have already seen more than 65 billion gallons of water used in 26,339 fracking operations.

In 2011, in a district in west Texas, the share of water resources used by fracking well sites jumped from 25 percent in 2010 to 40 percent in the first half of 2011. In Michigan, regulators granted a permit for a drilling company, Encana Oil and Gas, to use more than 21 million gallons of water at a single well in 2012. Repeatedly siphoning off these quantities of water for fracking can be a hardship for municipalities with limited capacity to augment their local water supplies—supplies that must also provide drinking and irrigation water for residents.

Water use by the fracking industry isn’t comparable to water use by homeowners or farmers' agricultural needs. When used for household or agricultural purposes, often the water can eventually return to the ground to replenish aquifers, rivers and streams through the hydrological cycle.

On the other hand, after water has been used for fracking, much of it remains trapped deep underground in the wells. Wastewater that bubbles up to the surface is contaminated—both with the chemicals used in fracking and with heavy metals picked up from the shale rock formation—and must be stored away from drinking water sources.

The options for storage are limited: it can be impounded in reservoirs or injected underground. If it were to be treated and returned to the environment, it would need to be trucked to an industrial treatment facility, because municipal wastewater treatment facilities are not properly equipped to remove the chemicals in fracking wastewater. In reality, a large portion of the water used in fracking is left underground and becomes effectively lost.

Renewable energy sources don’t have the same demands on water supplies. Solar and wind power use no water to capture energy and can peacefully coexist with agriculture. When it comes to generating electricity, for every 1,000 kilowatt-hours produced, solar thermal technology uses around 3,500 liters of water. In comparison, fossil fuels use 28,400 liters, more than eight times more. Solar photovoltaic and wind energy both consume less than 4 liters per kilowatt-hour of energy produced.

The nation faces a future made uncertain by the impacts of extreme heat, drought and wildfires exacerbated by climate change. Renewable energy generation not only cuts the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, it doesn’t tax water reserves, which are quickly becoming a limited and precious resource.

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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