One more reason to hate fracking: It wastes water


You don’t need to be a rocket scientist — or a top geologist, or that matter — to understand that fracking for natural gas is not only a highly risky but a poorly thought-out process. In the half-dozen years since the boom in drilling for shale gas spread from the oil belt of Texas to new regions like the Marcellus Shale underneath Pennsylvania, we’ve watched poorly designed fracking rigs pollute drinking water supplies with methane or toxic pollutants, while we’ve also seen fracking companies struggle with where to get rid of millions of gallons of wastewater carrying traces of radiation from deep under the earth. Too many times these fracking wastes have been disposed of in places like sewage treatment plants, where they contaminate municipal water supplies.

This weekend, a report on the website Think Progress reminds us of one more problem with fracking, and it’s a big one: The process gobbles up literally billions of gallons of water that might otherwise by used by the public for drinking or for irrigating crops (of increasing importance as droughts that are probably related to global warming assault the American heartland). As the article in Think Progress notes, some of the heaviest diversion of water for fracking has taken place in regions where the public water supply was already at a premium:

Every fracking job requires 2 million to 4 million gallons of water, according to the Groundwater Protection Council. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, has estimated that the 35,000 oil and gas wells used for fracking consume between 70 billion and 140 billion gallons of water each year. That’s about equal, EPA says, to the water use in 40 to 80 cities with populations of 50,000 people, or one to two cities with a population of 2.5 million each.

Some of the most intensive oil and gas development in the nation is occurring in regions where water is already at a premium. A paper published last month by Ceres, a nonprofit that works on sustainability issues, looked at 25,000 shale oil and shale gas wells in operation and monitored by an industry-tied reporting website called FracFocus.

Ceres found that 47 percent of these wells were in areas “with high or extremely high water stress” because of large withdrawals for use by industry, agriculture, and municipalities. In Colorado, for example, 92 percent of the wells were in extremely high water-stress areas, and in Texas more than half were in high or extremely high water-stress areas.

As with other environmental problems that have developed as a result of fracking, there is growing awareness among regulators and even among industry that something needs to be done — but what? The article points to some ideas that seem worthy of further investigation — using sewage wastewater to frack, instead of fresh water supplies, for example — but other proposals sound even worse than the current practices. Replacing water with propane? Seriously?

As the article notes:

But, he added, no one has yet clearly demonstrated that fracking with propane or some of the other alternatives—such as using a nitrogen or carbon dioxide gel—can compete on economics with water. Propane, he said, “is expensive and nobody really knows how much it takes to develop a typical shale gas well with a lateral that is a mile or two long.”

Oil and gas service companies such as Halliburton and Schlumberger have thrown a lot of money and bright minds at seeking efficiencies over many years, said Ingraffea, and if there was a “silver bullet you would think those companies would have hit it very hard.”

I would argue that the real question here is not so much how can we frack better, but how can we frack less. As noted here in other posts, fracking — just like the deep-water offshore drilling that led to the catastrophe in the Gulf —  is one of the many extreme manifestations of the real problem, our never-ending addiction to oil and other fossil fuels. Other Western economies, especially in Europe, have invested both their cash and their energies in alternative fuel sources, especially wind and solar, with remarkable success. Think of all the benefits if America channeled its vast scientific know-how into these new, ecologically sound energy sources instead of just finding different (and not necessarily better) ways to frack. It’s all one more reason we would urge a moratorium on fracking until the process is not only safe…but rare.

To read the Think Progress special report on fracking and water supplies, go to:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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