By Sharon Kelly
Between 2011 and 2016, fracked oil and gas wells in the U.S. pumped out record-breaking amounts of wastewater, which is laced with toxic and radioactive materials, a new Duke University study concludes. The amount of wastewater from fracking rose 1,440 percent during that period.
Over the same time, the total amount of water used for fracking rose roughly half as much, 770 percent, according to the paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
"Previous studies suggested hydraulic fracturing does not use significantly more water than other energy sources, but those findings were based only on aggregated data from the early years of fracking," Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, said in a statement. "After more than a decade of fracking operation, we now have more years of data to draw upon from multiple verifiable sources."
The researchers predict that spike in water use will continue to climb.
And over the next dozen years, they say the amount of water used could grow up to 50 times higher when fracking for shale gas and 20 times higher when fracking for oil—should prices rise. The paper, titled "The Intensification of the Water Footprint of Hydraulic Fracturing," was based on a study conducted with funding from the National Science Foundation.
"Even if prices and drilling rates remain at current levels, our models still predict a large increase by 2030 in both water use and wastewater production," said Andrew J. Kondash, a PhD student in Vengosh's lab who was lead author of the paper.
More Water Than Oil
The shale industry has been heavily focused on amping up the amount of fossil fuels it can pump per well by drilling longer horizontal well bores and using more sand, water and chemicals when fracking (which raises the costs per well and, as DeSmog recently reported, raises risks of water pollution).
But the water use and wastewater production per well have been growing even faster than the per-well fossil fuel production, the researchers found, labeling the water demand and wastewater growth "much higher" than the oil or gas increases.
Shale drilling and fracking often occurs in areas already suffering from water stress.Duke University
The researchers studied data from more than 12,000 oil and gas wells representing each of the major shale-producing regions in the U.S.
Their findings are particularly troubling news for arid areas like the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico, where underground water supplies are already taxed by residential and agricultural demand, and where fights over water use are brewing.
On average, a Permian Basin well used 10.3 million gallons of water in 2016, according to a San Antonio Express-News investigation earlier this year—more than double the average per-well demand just a few years ago.
A Waterfall of Waste
The wastewater problem has attracted the eye of industry analysts, particularly in the Permian.
"One of the biggest risks facing operators today is the issue of produced water," wrote Ryan Duman, a Wood Mackenzie senior energy analyst, describing how in parts of Texas and New Mexico, wells can produce up to 10 gallons of wastewater for every gallon of crude oil. "The sheer volume of water is unprecedented."
And that wastewater can be a toxic blend that's very difficult to treat, in part because it may contain high levels of corrosive salts, naturally occurring radioactive materials, and fracking chemicals whose identities are considered trade secrets and which even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can't list.
The agency highlighted this fact in its 2016 national study on fracking and American drinking water supplies. While drafted under strong pressure from industry, the EPA study found that fracking not only generates vast amounts of wastewater but also can and has polluted drinking water supplies in areas nationwide.
"There aren't water quality standards or even approved analytical methods for most of the chemicals we know are a concern in produced water," said Colin Leyden, senior manager for state regulatory and legislative affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund.
There's so much toxic wastewater produced from fracking oil and gas in the U.S. that it's difficult to envision just how much water comes from the wells. Expressed in terms of barrels or swimming pools, the numbers still grow dizzyingly high.
One way to think of it is literally in terms of a waterfall of toxic waste. "One of the things I think we can lose sight of is just how much produced water we are creating … which is more on a per day basis than Niagara Falls has going over it in an hour," Joel Mack, an attorney at Latham & Watkins, a firm which represents oil and gas companies, recently said in an E&P Magazine article. He has predicted that water-related costs in the Permian could top $17 billion in 2018.
Wastewater disposal—which often uses "injection wells" that pump toxic water down underground into areas where oil has been pumped out—is suspected not only of playing a role in causing earthquakes across the U.S., but also linked by scientists to the emergence of massive sinkholes in parts of Texas.
"The ground movement we're seeing is not normal," said geophysicist Zhong Lu, an earth sciences professor at Southern Methodist University, who recently published research that highlighted the connection of the sinkholes to fracking. "These hazards represent a danger to residents, roads, railroads, levees, dams, and oil and gas pipelines, as well as potential pollution of ground water."
Wringing Water From the Desert
The industry's demand for water during fracking is also a growing concern, especially in the Permian Basin, which produces most of America's shale oil and which stretches in part over the Chihuahuan Desert.
Summer temperatures in the Permian can often top 100 degrees. The average annual rainfall in Pecos, Texas, located in the basin, is just 11.55 inches (compared to a Texas-wide average of 28.9 inches a year). Much of New Mexico has been in the grips of a severe drought since the year began, and the same is true to a lesser degree in Texas as well.
This means demand for water for drilling and fracking is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry. "Next to profitability and safety, water may well be the next most important topic for an oil company," Laura Capper, CEO at EnergyMakers Advisory Group in Houston, told Bloomberg. "It has risen to the forefront over the last five years unlike anything I've ever seen."
And as the climate warms, Texas and New Mexico will also benefit less from water supplied by rivers flowing into the state from more lush regions. The Rio Grande River Basin is expected to see less water flowing per year, with flows down four to 14 percent over the next dozen years, and the Colorado River Basin expected to dry up even more significantly, up to 30 percent by 2050.
Most of the water used in the region is claimed by the agricultural industry—60 percent compared to the one percent used by the oil and gas industry. But a key difference is that water used for fracking is often permanently removed from the hydrologic cycle, because it becomes so contaminated that it must be injected in underground disposal wells. This means that the freshwater used by the oil and gas industry can add up over time much more dramatically than water used by other industries.
In addition, spats over the oil and gas industry's use of water in the Permian are flaring up between its two states. Driven by Permian Basin demand, some landowners in Texas are selling water to drilling companies, drawing down aquifers relied on by residents of New Mexico.
"Texas is stealing New Mexico's water," New Mexico State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn told The Texas Tribune. "If you put a whole bunch of straws in Texas and you don't have any straws in New Mexico, you're sucking all the water from under New Mexico out in Texas and then selling it back to New Mexico."
The latest findings from Duke reinforce this tension, showing "a need to find alternative water sources," the doctoral student Kondash told the Pacific Standard.
"Especially in water-scarce areas," he predicted, "you will have more strain and more competition for water."
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
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By Jason Bruck
Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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By Ashutosh Pandey
Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons (Mt), or 7.3 kilogram per person, a UN report showed on Thursday.
Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
Europe Leads the Way<p>While most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt) in 2019, Europe led the charts on a per person basis with 16.2 kg per capita, the report said.</p><p>But the continent also recorded the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-declares-war-on-e-waste/a-51108790" target="_blank">highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling</a> rate at 42.5%, still below its target of 65%. Europe was well ahead of the others on this front. Asia ranked second with 11.7%.</p><p>The authors said while more that 70% of the world's population was covered by some form of e-waste policy or laws, not much was being done toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations to encourage the take-up of a collection and recycling infrastructure due to lack of investment and political motivation.</p><p>"You have to think about new economic systems," said Kühr.</p><p>One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products, but only the service they offer. The device would remain the property of the maker, who would then have an interest in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment. The maker would also be interested in designing his products in such a way that they are easier to repair and easier to recycle, Kühr said.</p>
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