Quantcast
Energy

U.S. Fracking Industry Reacts to Water Scarcity Issues

Ceres

by Peyton Fleming

Hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) has recast the U.S.’s energy future, but it’s also shining a light on fragile water supplies, which could crimp the industry’s growth.

Exploration fracking well drilling in the desert.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The pinch is especially strong on shale energy producers and state regulators who are scrambling to find ways to keep the water flowing to this thirsty industry while not shortchanging farmers, municipalities and growing populations. Anywhere from two to 10 million gallons of water (along with sand and chemicals) are injected into each fracturing well. Multiply that times tens of thousands of wells and you’re talking lots of water—and wastewater, too.

Given a fast-changing regulatory landscape and the diverse geologic conditions of key shale energy basins around the country, it’s a challenge with no easy solutions.

“We’ve got to plan and plan and plan,” engineering executive Ken Burris told a crowd of 75 industry players and regulators last week at a Water Management for Shale Plays 2013 conference in Denver.

The urgency is palpable. In less than a decade, hydraulic fracturing has grown from a largely unregulated wildcat industry to an energy juggernaut that is rejuvenating rural economies in North Dakota, Texas and Pennsylvania and putting America back on track to become the world’s largest oil producer again.

 

But achieving such meteoric growth doesn’t come without growing pains—especially those around meeting the red-hot demand for water that shale producers need to inject into their wells.

Ground zero, in many ways, is Texas.

The U.S.’s second-largest state is in the midst of a historic drought, has little surface water to speak of and many of its groundwater aquifers are drying up. The most noteworthy of these sources under stress is the Ogallala Aquifer, which overlaps with the Permian Basin in west Texas. But that hasn’t stopped oil and gas shale production from booming, leading to a doubling in water use the past three years with even bigger jumps expected as more wells are drilled in the rich Eagle Ford formation in south Texas.

 

Industry players concede there isn’t enough freshwater to meet their needs. “There are areas, like out in west Texas, where water could be a limiting factor,” for shale production, said Ken Nichols, civil engineer at CH2M Hill, at the Denver conference.

And that means turning to alternatives, such as recycled water or brackish water, which are already seeing more use.

The state’s vast reserves of brackish groundwater seems to be getting the most attention, with one study saying it’s already providing some 20 percent of water being used in the Permian and Eagle Ford Shale Basins. “It’s a very promising resource for the state,” said Larry French, director of the Texas Groundwater Resources Division.

But it is expensive and energy intensive to make the slightly salty water usable for each drilling site. More scrutiny is also needed to understand how escalating withdrawals of brackish waters may compromise freshwater aquifers. Growing interest by water-starved cities and towns to desalinate brackish water is another complicating factor.

Colorado faces a similar challenge of more people, escalating shale production and growing competitive pressures for surface water, especially by agriculture, which has strong legal water rights and uses about 85 percent of the state’s water. “Anything [frackers] produce from these wells has the potential to affect senior water rights,” said Dick Wolfe, state engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

For this reason, shale producers noted during the conference that they are relying as much as possible on deeper groundwater resources. These “non-tributary” waters are typically thousands of feet underground and are largely isolated from rivers, streams and other surface waters. Wolfe says the vast majority of the state’s 50,000 oil and gas wells—many of them fracking wells in the Niobrara Basin in northeast Colorado—are in non-tributary formations.

While Wolfe is confident that shale production will not compromise the state’s water supplies and water quality, others are leery and are calling for much more stringent recycling of fracking wastewater.

“Most frack water is so laden with toxics or salts that it is unsuitable for other uses, and must be disposed of in shallow pits or far below groundwater reservoirs,” wrote Bart Miller, water program director at Western Resources Advocates, in the Denver Post. “We can only hope it will never migrate and contaminate drinking water reservoirs.”

Unlike Texas and Colorado, North Dakota is relying on both aquifers and surface waters for hydraulic fracturing, much of it coming from the Missouri River, Lake Sakakawea and over-allocated groundwater supplies. With wells popping up like dandelions—North Dakota now produces 10 percent of the country’s energy—tensions and lawsuits are escalating between frackers, farmers and other water users.

“When all of us had nothing [before the oil boom], there was nothing to fight about,” Dan Kalil, a county commissioner in western North Dakota’s Williams County, home to many oil and natural gas wells, told Reuters. “Now, so many friendships have been destroyed because of water and oil.”

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

——–

Sign the petition today, telling President Obama to enact an immediate fracking moratorium:

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Shutterstock

September 2017: Earth's 4th Warmest September on Record

By Dr. Jeff Masters

September 2017 was the planet's fourth warmest September since record keeping began in 1880, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) and NASA this week. The only warmer Septembers came during 2015, 2016 and 2014. Minor differences can occur between the NASA and NOAA rankings because of their different techniques for analyzing data-sparse regions such as the Arctic.

Keep reading... Show less

Shocking Photo of Dehorned Black Rhino Wins Top Award

Africa loses an average of three rhinos a day to the ongoing poaching crisis and the illegal rhino horn trade. In 2016 alone, 1,054 rhinos were reported killed in South Africa, representing a loss in rhinos of approximately six percent. That's close to the birth rate, meaning the population remains perilously close to the tipping point.

This year, the Natural History Museum in London awarded photographer Brent Stirton the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year grand title for his grisly image of a black rhino with its two horns hacked off in South Africa's Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Smallholder agriculture in southern Ethiopia. Smallholder farmers are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. Leah Samberg

How Climate Change and Wars Are Increasing World Hunger

By Leah Samberg

Around the globe, about 815 million people—11 percent of the world's population—went hungry in 2016, according to the latest data from the United Nations. This was the first increase in more than 15 years.

Between 1990 and 2015, due largely to a set of sweeping initiatives by the global community, the proportion of undernourished people in the world was cut in half. In 2015, UN member countries adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which doubled down on this success by setting out to end hunger entirely by 2030. But a recent UN report shows that, after years of decline, hunger is on the rise again.

Keep reading... Show less
Pixabay

Two Graphs Explain Why California’s Wildfires Will Only Get Worse

By Molly Taft

The deadly wildfires ripping through Northern California are just the latest in a season of record-defying natural disasters in the U.S. As the death toll passes 40, reports of Californians hiding in pools as their houses burn and scenes of devastated homes and vineyards add to 2017's apocalyptic picture of how climate change is impacting America today.

As the Trump administration guts environmental protections and undermines science, California is one of the states leading the way on climate action. Ironically, experts agree the state can expect devastating fires like the ones in Napa to become the new normal. Drier and drier conditions and creeping temperatures in the American Southwest, definitively linked to climate change, serve to create tinderbox conditions for massive, catastrophic fires to explode.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Leonardo DiCaprio / Facebook

Leonardo DiCaprio Invests in Plant-Based Food Company

Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector, but eating a burger doesn't have to come with a side of guilt.

Actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio has invested in Beyond Meat, the makers of the world's first vegan burger that's famously known to look, smell and even taste a lot like the real deal.

Keep reading... Show less
www.facebook.com

Guard Dog Wouldn’t Leave Goat Flock During California Fires—And Lived to Tell the Story

By Andrew Amelinckx

The fire the Hendels barely escaped was part of the Northern California firestorm that has so far claimed 40 lives—including one of their neighbors, Lynne Powell—destroyed countless homes, and caused billions of dollars in damage.

"Later that morning when we had outrun the fires I cried, sure that I had sentenced Odie to death, along with our precious family of bottle-raised goats," Roland Hendel wrote in a recent Facebook post.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate activists Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein shut down Enbridge's tar sands pipelines 4 and 67 in Minnesota on Oct. 11, 2016. Shutitdown.today

Judge Allows Vital 'Necessity Defense' for Climate Activists

By Jessica Corbett

In a decision that is being called "groundbreaking" and "precedent-setting," a district court judge in Minnesota has ruled that he will allow oil pipeline protesters to present a "necessity defense" for charges related to a multi-state action by climate activists last October.

In his decision last week, Judge Robert Tiffany ruled that four activists who participated in the #ShutItDown action—in which pipelines across five states were temporarily disabled, halting the flow of tar sands oil from Canada into the U.S.—may present scientists and other expert witnesses to explain the immediate threat of climate change to justify their action.

Keep reading... Show less
www.youtube.com

Why Are Incarcerated Women Battling California Wildfires for as Little as $1 a Day?

As raging wildfires in California scorch more than 200,000 acres—roughly the size of New York City—more than 11,000 firefighters are battling the blazes, and a number of them are prisoners, including many women inmates.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

Get EcoWatch in your inbox