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Water Use for Fracking Has Skyrocketed, Stressing Drought-Ridden States

Energy

Fracking operations in the U.S. have gotten thirstier in the last 15 years, consuming more than 28 times the water they did a mere 15 years ago.

A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in partnership with the American Geophysical Union, shows that not only has the number of such operations grown as fracking has expanded its reach and improved technology has allowed drilling in harder to reach locations, but individual wells are consuming more water as well. The median amount of water consumed by a single fracked well grew from 177,000 per oil and gas well in 2000 to more than 4 million gallons per oil well and 5.1 gallons per gas well in 2004. That's far more than the 671,000 gallons a year used by a conventional or vertical well. In the 52 out of 57 watersheds with the highest average water use, more than 90 percent of the wells were involved in horizontal drilling in shale gas areas.

Water use in fracking has grown but varies widely across major drilling areas, as this first-of-its-kind map shows. Image credit: USGS

Water consumption within a watershed where fracking takes place varied considerably, depending on the geology of the region and the location of the oil or gas deposit. Some operations in southern Illinois used as little as 2,600 gallons per well, while others in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Montana, Colorado, Arkansas and Texas used as much as 9 million gallons.

"One of the most important things we found was that the amount of water used per well varies quite a bit, even within a single oil and gas basin," said USGS scientist Tanya Gallegos, the study’s lead author. "This is important for land and resource managers, because a better understanding of the volumes of water injected for hydraulic fracturing could be a key to understanding the potential for some environmental impacts."

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According to study co-author Mark Engle, the increase is due to the same improved technology that allows companies to reach more out-of-the-way deposits. Fracturing the rock formations in those areas to allow access to the gas or oil requires more fluid to be injected under pressure.

The study compiled data on the amount of water used in more than 263,859 oil and gas wells drilled between 2000 and 2014 to create the first ever map depicting how and where hydraulic fracturing operations use water. The shale formations that coincided with watersheds where the most water was used for fracking operations including Eagle Ford and Barnett with watersheds located in Texas, Haynesville-Bossier above watersheds in Texas and Louisiana, Arkansas' Fayetteville, Oklahoma's Woodford, Tuscaloosa with watersheds located mainly in Louisiana and Mississippi, and the eastern Marcellus and Utica shale plays with watersheds in parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York.

This map shows the percentage of wells in each drilling area that are fracked. Image credit: USGS

Many of those areas have also experienced damaging droughts in the last five years due to climate change-driven global warming. So while the amount of water used in fracking is small compared to other uses such as agriculture, "The reality is there is a pretty strong constraint on the amount of fresh water available,” said Engle.

Some of the water used in drilling operations is recycled. But most of it, laden with toxic chemicals, is injected into deep underground wells where it is removed from future reuse. And, injecting fracking wastewater into underground wells has created another issues for many of these states—earthquakes.

"This research was carried out as part of a larger effort by the USGS to understand the resource requirements and potential environmental impacts of unconventional oil and gas development," says the governmental organization.

And if understanding leads to banning, as it did in New York recently, environmental advocates will cheer.

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Pexels

By Zak Smith

It is pretty amazing that in this moment when the COVID-19 outbreak has much of the country holed up in their homes binging Netflix, the most watched show in America over the last few weeks has been focused on wildlife trade — which scientists believe is the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. Make no mistake: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is about wildlife trade and other aspects of wildlife exploitation, just as surely as the appearance of Ebola, SARS, MERS, avian flu and probably COVID-19 in humans is a result of wildlife exploitation. As a conservationist, this is one of the things I've been thinking about while watching Tiger King. Here are five more:

1. We are in a biodiversity crisis.

A million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, many within decades, including tigers. The leading drivers of species decline and the impending collapse of ecosystems are ocean and land use changes (like converting wildlands into other uses, usually agricultural) and the direct exploitation of species (like taking animals out of the wild for eating, "medicinal" purposes, or status motives). It is for these exact reasons that there are more tigers in cages in the United States than there are in the wild. Developers continue to destroy tiger habitat and, in the not-so-distant past, hunters shot and killed tigers for sport or for trade in tiger products (and some still do illegally).

2. We must fundamentally change our relationship to nature.

Transformative change is necessary to limit species extinctions and secure human well-being (functioning ecosystems provide the clean air, clean water, carbon sequestration, flood control, healthy soils, pollination of plants and healthy coastal waters humans need to survive). Transformative change in this context means "a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values." We aren't going to halt the loss of species and strengthen ecosystems if we continue to treat wild plants and animals as expendable and renewable resources that we can use however we want. The tigers and other animals in Tiger King are exploited for profit and personal interests. Regardless of how they may be respected, coveted, or cared for, they are still treated as exploitable objects, which reinforces other destructive attitudes toward nature. A tiger cub is something to be held and photographed, a wetland is something to be filled and built upon, a rhino is something to be killed so we can use its horn for fake medicine. It's a view of nature as being in service to human wants, an attitude that is destroying our planet and one that must change.

3. Most wildlife trade should be banned and we should protect more wild places.

As noted above, ocean and land use changes and direct exploitation of species are causing an extinction crisis and threaten the ecosystems we depend on for human well-being. In line with our exploitative mindset, we've been stuck for centuries with economic and social patterns that allow unfettered use of wild places and wildlife until there's a problem. We need to flip that model on its head and only use wild places and wildlife if we can affirmatively demonstrate that such use won't contribute to the biodiversity and climate crisis. Tigers and the other animals appearing in Tiger King wouldn't be endangered today and wouldn't require "sanctuaries" if we hadn't destroyed their habitat and taken them from the wild for food, pets, "medicine" and trophies.

To set things right, we should ban most wildlife trade and protect more of the natural world. I say "most" wildlife trade to account for the exception of well-managed fisheries. NRDC has long sought to limit irresponsible wildlife trade (fighting for imperiled species internationally, supporting state efforts to limit trade, providing recommendations to China on revisions to its wildlife law), and now we must go further by banning most trade. In addition, we should support efforts to set aside vast swaths of ocean, land and terrestrial water to rebalance the functioning of our natural world. That's why NRDC and others support an initial call of protecting 30 percent of the world's oceans, lands and water areas by 2030. In China, we're protecting areas in a way that helps tigers by supporting the government's development of a National Park system, with targeted efforts on one of its pilot parks, the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park, which provides an important habitat for China's struggling populations of Amur tigers and leopards.

4. Not​ all sanctuaries are sanctuaries.

A lot of so-called sanctuaries are dumpster fires; they serve no purpose other than exploitation of animals for profit, and the animals suffer needlessly. It doesn't look like the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park — the park formerly owned by Joe Exotic — is a sanctuary, though it styles itself as being one, so the public may be confused. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, legitimate sanctuaries "do not breed, allow public contact with, sell, or otherwise exploit the animals that they take in." Legitimate sanctuaries can play an important role in saving imperiled species, promoting animal welfare, and educating the public. But those that do not meet strict standards are part of the problem, not the solution. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) provides accreditation for sanctuaries that abide by a set of policies, including the maintenance of a nonprofit/noncommercial status. Big Cat Rescue, which is featured in the Tiger King series, "has held GFAS Accreditation status since 2009."

5. Changing our relationship to nature must include a just transition.

Throughout the world and in the United States, millions of people use nature in destructive ways for their livelihoods. I don't say this with judgement; often, people are just doing what we've always done — business as usual — which is unfortunately destroying the planet. Workers in the fossil fuel industry, fishermen in unsustainable fisheries, clearcutters in the tropics and boreal forests, and even people working at fake sanctuaries depend on the current system of exploiting nature to provide for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, it's at the expense of other people who depend on healthy, thriving ecosystems for their livelihoods and at the expense of human well-being overall. If we want to succeed in charting a new path for our planet, we must commit to making people and communities whole. The rampant exploitation appearing on the screen in Tiger King isn't just of wildlife — it is also of many desperate people brutalized by a political and economic system providing few options. We're not going to successfully realign our relationship with nature if we don't provide the necessary support for people and communities to transition to more sustainable, ethical means of providing for themselves and their families.

So, watch Tiger King and see if for you, like me, it informs the horror of the current moment, then maybe think about building a different world when we come out of this — a vibrant, natural world filled with wildlife and wonder, where we orient ourselves around preserving nature, not exploiting it, and embark on a new human journey.

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