Tuesday, July 2, 2013

H20 consumption for fracking exceeds industry projections Lack of reporting requirements discourages clear picture

Workers pump water from a lake to an impoundment
 for fracking in the Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas.

Photo provided by USGS 
The amount of water needed for hydraulic fracturing, like much information we wish we could count on from the industry, is not well documented and varies case by case. But as shale gas plays ramp up throughout the country, evidence suggests actual quantities tend to exceed projections.

Assessing potential for high volume hydraulic fracturing to stress local water supplies is an elusive task. Lack of centralized and uniform reporting requirements leave reporters and researchers to compile trends from piecemeal and sometimes conflicting sources and extrapolations. Last week Forrest Wilder of the Texas Observer, wrestling with this very problem, reported:

If you want to know how much crude oil was produced in Texas in March, the numbers are available to the barrel (50,087,778). If you need a monthly rig count for the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas or the number of drilling permits issued in 2012 (4,143), the Texas Railroad Commission can provide that information. But if you want to know how much water was used to frack wells for any time period anywhere in Texas’ shale plays… Well, get out your calculator.

Wilder did just that, focusing on a three-county area—Dimmit, LaSalle and Zavala counties—in the southwestern portion of the shale play between San Antonio and Laredo. It’s a region of scarce rainfall and growing prospects of competition for water between burgeoning shale gas development and agriculture. Wilder found that, depending on the source of information, shale gas water consumption in 2012 ranged between 10,000 and 15,000 acre-feet. It’s a range that suggests, if nothing else, an astounding disconnect between industry projections and realistic values for water use. Based on the Texas Observer analysis, in 2012 shale gas developers in the three county-area used between one third and one half of what the Texas Railroad Commission -- relying on informal and unpublished industry estimates -- projected for the entire 24-county Eagle Ford Shale at its peak 10 years from now.

The Observer analysis was based on records by FrackFocus.org, a site that compiles information submitted voluntarily by “participating oil and gas companies.” In Texas, as with other places, some groundwater authorities require companies using water for fracking to obtain a permit, while others do not. Interpretation of the law “depends on which lawyer you talk to,” Slate Williams told Kate Galbraith of the Texas Tribune. Williams, general manager of the Crockett County Groundwater Conservation District in West Texas, asks drillers to report the amount of water they withdraw. “They don’t always do that, but it’s something we ask,” Williams said.

I came across similar contradictions last year raised by Lisa Wright, a fracking opponent trying to reconcile disparities between information from New York state officials and geologist Geoffrey Thyne. According to New York’s draft policy for shale gas development (the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement or SGEIS), horizontal shale wells use between 2 million and 7 million gallons each. Thyne is a researcher who worked first at the Colorado School of Mines and later at the University of Wyoming. He lost assignments with both institutions amid controversy over his critique of the industry, and figures he provided for Boulder Weekly reporter Shauna Stephenson that indicate a long gas well used between 48 million and 70 million gallons of fluid –  a calculation that was dismissed by the industry as ridiculous and misleading.

In addition to questions about consumption, Wright wondered why there was so much uncertainty about the amount of waste each well produces.  She cited a Stony Brook University study, published last year in the journal Risk Analysis, that found flowback from a given well ranges from between 10 percent and 80 percent of the volumes injected. (Fresh water that remains in the ground is removed from the eco-system – a status known as “consumptive use.” What comes out is laden with salts, unknown chemical mixtures, metals, and radium. Some of it comes from deep gas baring zones, some if it is injected with fresh water, and all of it is exempt from hazardous waste laws.)

Either end of the flowback range offered by Stony Brook study - 10 percent or 80 percent - poses problems that must be recognized and dealt with. Wells that produce little flowback consume relatively high amounts of fresh water. (They also become, in effect, disposal wells.) Those with high volumes of flowback produce corresponding amounts of polluted water. Wright raises a fair question: “With so many eyes on this issue, and with increasing drought conditions-- how can we NOT know this stuff?”

Looking for some clarity, I checked in with Tony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineering professor and former hydraulic fracturing consultant for the industry, and Terry Engelder, a geologist and industry consultant from Penn State. Tony sees shale gas development as a net loser when ecological costs are factored, while Terry believes it’s a winner. But both agreed that reliable information on water consumption is hard to get at; that there are many variables that can be manipulated to suit interpretations; and volumes will likely tend to increase over time as technology allows for wells that extend greater distances.

A 70-million-gallon frack job (a prospect raised by Thyne) would be logistically improbable if not impossible in Pennsylvania, Engelder said. He cited an example of a frack job in Bradford County, however, that used 8 million gallons to stimulate a mile-long Chesapeake well in Bradford County, and he acknowledged that wells in the future could extend twice that far, thereby using twice the volume. Ingraffea cited some wells in Michigan extending for miles that will use as much as 23 million gallons each.

“Laterals are getting longer everywhere, because many stages are unproductive, and operators have to justify the drilling expense,” Ingraffea said. “Longer laterals, all else being equal, more frac fluid.”

When industry proponents talk about the need for water to develop shale gas, they often put fracking in the context of other ways we use water, like sprinkling lawns, gardens, or golf courses. (See David Blackman’s recent piece in Forbes as the latest example.) The irrigation comparison, however, fails to recognize that watering a lawn and fracking a gas well are two entirely different things. For starters, water on lawns and golf courses is not forever removed from the eco-system, nor is it reintroduced with an array of hazards.

The industry’s water needs are not merely a concern among liberals and greens. As reported recently by Norimitsu Onishi of the New York Times, competition for water in California is raising tensions between farmers and operators as the drilling industry pushes into fertile farm regions in pursuit of unexplored shale gas reserves. And concerns over water lead community leaders in Mora County, a small town in energy-rich New Mexico, to pass the nation’s first countywide ban on hydraulic fracturing. (Hear report by Carrie Jung of KUNM radio here.)

Engelder agreed that competition for water between agriculture and drilling in Texas and elsewhere will become more of a problem if things don’t change. “I think frackers are going to have to learn to use salt water from the Gulf of Mexico in very short order if they wish to continue,” he said. “Otherwise, get 'em all on wind from west Texas and electric vehicles…  We are going to need all the water we can get for AG.”

Areas not prone to drought also have water conflicts. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, an ardent drilling supporter and opponent of industry regulation, recently accused the Delaware River Basin Commission of hindering the economy and violating property rights by holding off shale gas development in its ecologically sensitive jurisdiction. The agency monitors the drinking-water supply of more than 15 million people, including Philadelphia and half the population of New York City, and prohibits Marcellus Shale drilling in the basin that covers parts four states - New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware – as it considers policy.

 If shale gas develops along its current trajectory, the industry will need more water tomorrow than it does today. In short, we will have more wells with longer laterals tapping shale reserves extending under dozens of states, including many areas where drilling is new and unfamiliar. If the current anti-regulatory attitude persists nationwide, the public will have little control over what it cannot see coming. As the industry has fought hard to preserve federal loopholes that exempt it from Safe Drinking Water Act and hazardous waste laws, it’s a safe bet that it will not be eager to provide accessible information on its water consumption habits. It’s the kind of information that invites regional planning initiatives that pro-drillers characterize as a drag on the industry, even if they are vital to long-term community safeguards.


  1. The story on Thyne was interesting. A geology professor questioning fracking's impact on the environment at CSM is like a theology prof questioning the divinity of Jesus Christ at Wheaton College in Illinois.

    U of Tennessee is working on a so called "waterless" fracking using nitrogen. However, the process only cuts the water use in about half and still uses the same cocktail of fracking chemicals. The nitrogen/water mixture is turned into a foam. My take is that it will be worse.

    Here's an interesting retail investment advice article from Motley Fool:

    Of course to keep gen x and baby boomer everymen investors excited, Motley Fool ended the discussion with the following:

    "A Foolish takeaway: Hydraulic fracturing, it seems, will always be a target for environmental grousing and federal nitpicking. It seems unlikely, however, that it will ever be severely curtailed. On that basis, I'm increasingly becoming a proponent of Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) , especially under its new management."

    "The company is the nation's second largest natural gas producer, its most active fracker, and the holder of substantial acreage in many of our nation's major shale plays. it's also likely to see its shares propelled higher by what's likely to be an increase in U.S. natural gas demand."

    Pretty sad.

    1. Thanks for the links. Not sure where Motley Fool's assessment of federal nitpicking is coming from. The industry has been given an unlmited pass.

  2. Excellent post, Tom. Last year I wrote a piece that put into context the high water demands and often deleterious water impacts of fracking, which are frequently understated.

    Really? Shale Gas Fracking Uses a Lot of Water? Really!


    As noted above and in my post, while the oil and gas industry and its boosters deploy grand, macro-level water-use comparisons, a major characteristic of water - even within the larger hydrological cycle - is that water is experienced as a localized phenomenon. That means that if water is taken out of use (e.g., consumed, contaminated) in a given area, then that loss of water can have a great impact.

    1. Kai, thanks for the link and for your analysis, which is well worth reading for anybody trying to understand the dynamics of the water issue and the industry's attempt to speak and think on behalf of community stakeholders

  3. Fresh water originates with evaporation from the ocean, so some portion of the frack water staying in the well isn't really depleting any future fresh water supply. In the big picture of the world's water supply, it is an insignificant quantity, though one just as well argue it is helping in a miniscule way to reduce sea level rise.

    1. The comment above yours kind of pokes holes in your thesis. Water is local. Water on a global scale isn't necessarily the issue as much as the quality of water and as Kai nicely pointed out the availability of the source to the surrounding community. For instance, I get my water from Lake Michigan. If it's loaded with mercury and undrinkable it it isn't a usable source regardless of quantity. We could spend billions on treatment capital upgrades and operations, but is that feasible (i.e. doability)?

      In areas where groundwater is the sole drinking water source the impacts by fracking involve quantity extracted and in situ impacts to the aquifer quality. Even if less water were to be used for fracking, would the quality be lessened due to oil and gas extraction operations from start to finish?

    2. The point is that the "big picture" of the hydrological cycle, while true, devalues the local impact of unsustainable freshwater use and/or water contamination. If freshwater suitable for human needs is "consumed" in the fracking process (e.g. injected and remains as groundwater, evaporated, contaminated), then it can be lost for use for (extremely) long periods of time. To wit:

      "In _The Handbook of Water Use and Conservation_, by Amy Vickers, water withdrawal is defined as 'water diverted or withdrawn from a surface water or groundwater source.' Consumptive water use, on the other hand, is defined as 'water use that permanently withdraws water from its source; water that is no longer available because it has evaporated, been transpired by plants, incorporated into products or crops, consumed by people or livestock, or otherwise removed from the immediate water environment.'"

      Water Use, Withdrawal and Consumption

    3. 1. i'm going to address water usage in the NY/Pa area of shale development,  for which i have some familarity. Assume 8 million gallons of water used for a shale well draining 80 acres (8 wells/sq mi ) and no recycling of the water in adjoining wells. 8 million gallons/80 acres is 100,000 gallons/acre of water use. NY/Pa receives about 30 in/year of rainfall or about 1 million gallons/acre.  Averaged over a 10 year lifetime  of the gas well, water for gas development uses one percent of the rainfall falling on land above the gas field, which hardly seems an unsustainable quantity.
      2. Regarding longer laterals, does anyone claim it would use more water per acre of gas development than shorter laterals? My reasoned assumption would be less water per acre, since the vertical bore would be shared over more gas producing laterals.
      3. Finally, during most of the year in NY/Pa, river water is abundant and simply runs into the ocean. Properly regulated water withdrawals are not depleting a limited resource.

    4. Milt,

      1. That's a water budget question and it'll take a spreadsheet, a couple of nomographs, some regional and local hydrologic, soil, hydrogeologic and climate data - and billable hours to answer that question.

      2. Hopefully water isn't being injected in the vertical run - that would be bad. Longer horizontal runs, more fractures means more water. That is what you mean by laterals, no?

      3. I believe you'll have to watch "Chinatown" for the answer to that question. The John Huston character addressed that in a monolog I believe. Isn't LA revisiting it's dominion over nature approach to water supply right now.

    5. Good discussion, and I have nothing to add to Kai, Milt and Michael’s analysis and scenarios. My fight is with the issue of transparency. For a solid analytical starting point, we need hard data, and the industry simply is unwilling to give it up and the government is unwilling to require let alone enforce any meaningful reporting. This applies not just to water consumption, but what goes into and comes out of the well other than H20.

  4. I want to point out that the anticipated water volumes are used to estimate other environmental impacts like the amount of truck traffic or the amount of chemicals used per well.

    So, for example, in the NYSDEC's 2011 Revised Draft SGEIS, p. 6-302, footnote 3 for Table 6.60 states that the figure of 1,148 one-way truck trips per well reported in Table 6.60 was arrived at by "conservatively" assuming "that each well would use approximately 5 million gallons of water total and that all water would be trucked to the site." The footnote also states "This is substantially greater than the likely volume of water that would be trucked to the site."

    But maybe the 5-million-gallon figure is NOT substantially greater than the likely volume of water trucked to the site, in which case the truck estimate might be too low--perhaps way too low.

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