Study reports half of US fracking operations in drought stricken areas

By Jacob Bell

A new study conducted by the non-profit sustainable leadership advocacy group  Ceres,  found that more than half of all hydraulic fracturing wells in the United States are in areas experiencing drought.

Ceres analyzed data from eight regions of high shale development within the U.S. and Canada.  The study found that 56 percent of U.S. hydraulically fractured wells are located in regions of drought.  The data also showed that 47 percent of these wells are in areas with pre-existing high water demands and that 36 percent are in regions with depleted groundwater levels.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is one of many techniques used by the energy industry to obtain natural gas and oil.  During fracking, a highly pressurized mixture of water, sand, and chemical additives is pumped through a wellbore to release energy reserves underground.  This process stimulates the productivity of the well, by creating and intensifying fissures within the deposits, thereby releasing embedded oil and gas.

Although fracking requires less water than agriculture, three to five million gallons are commonly consumed during the lifespan of a well.  According to Explore Shale – a project of the conservationist organization Colcom Foundation – this volume of water represents the average daily consumption of 67,000 people.

The largest fracking-related water consumption rates in the U.S. are in the Southwest Texas Eagle Ford Shale region, where 19.2 billion gallons of water are consumed annually.  Fracking in the Pennsylvania and West Virginia Marcellus Shale formation has the second highest use of water, with 13.5 billion gallons.

“Those states are so water strapped that any additional water use is an issue,” said Kate Sinding, senior attorney and deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Obviously the concern is that fracking is a consumptive water use,” Sinding continued.  “So far regulators haven’t really taken the step of limiting the amount of water that can be used.”

Fracking critics also cite that much of the water used during the extraction process is permanently lost from the water cycle.  The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states that more than 90 percent of all fracking water used in Pennsylvania and West Virginia is left behind in fracking wellbores.

Sinding noted that there is an industry push to increase the amount of recycled water used in fracking, but that the fix comes with its own set of drawbacks.  Water repeatedly used for fracking  is currently untreatable for drinking or agriculture, as a result of pollutants introduced during the fracturing process.

“It’s certainly not a perfect solution,” Sinding said, of the industry’s initial efforts to introduce a more sustainable and environmentally friendly approach.

Yet with severe U.S. drought and a number of grass-root efforts to introduce legislation to limit or ban the practice, the hydraulic fracturing industry faces increasing pressure to both limit and redefine its water consumption practices.