Article courtesy of Carolyn Heising | September 27, 2014 | The Des Moines Register | Shared as educational material
With all the recent news about the use of new technological innovations in hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, you’d think that methods have been introduced to use less water for fracking.
But the opposite is the case.
For each new gas well, more than four times as much water, compared to a decade ago, is now being pumped deep beneath the ground, along with a mixture of sand and chemicals, to get gas out of shale formations.
This is troubling, given growing public concern about water scarcity, and it raises serious questions about the consequences of fracking in large parts of the United States.
There already is worry about the significant rise in power-plant burning of natural gas, a fossil fuel, albeit one cleaner than coal, but which is loading the atmosphere with an enormous amount of carbon dioxide linked to global warming.
The growing use of water for energy production is especially troubling in parts of the Midwest where groundwater levels have dropped six feet or more in recent years and rivers are used as sources of drinking water for millions of people.
In 2003, Four Sevens Oil Co. drilled what was considered the best gas well that year, in the Barnett shale, north of Fort Worth, Texas, according to Drillinginfo, an industry data service.
Four Sevens used a whopping 2.8 million gallons of water in fracking the well. Last year, Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. drilled the best well in the U.S., this one in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania. Cabot pumped in 12.5 million gallons of water, more than four times the amount Four Sevens used.
Not only is fracking consuming a lot more water than ever before, but a much larger fleet of trucks — especially heavy trucks — is needed to carry the water to a gas well and haul away waste water to injection wells. This is producing more noise, dust and ground-level disturbance in many rural communities that are not accustomed to it. It’s also causing more highway accidents.
While there is no question that the shale revolution has been a remarkable economic success, creating thousands of jobs and triggering a comeback for U.S. manufacturing, its effect on the environment is disquieting nonetheless.
In the name of economic growth, policymakers are favoring natural gas over alternatives like solar, wind and especially nuclear power that have a smaller carbon footprint and much less impact on the environment.
Energy companies are now drilling more than 100 new wells every day. (About 82,000 wells have been fracked since 2005, according to Environment America, a research group.)
Each well that is fracked requires as much as a million gallons of water or more depending on the shale formation and the depth and length of the horizontal portion of the well. Altogether fracking has consumed more than 250 billion gallons of water in the past decade.
Unlike most industrial uses of water, which recycle water for further use, fracking converts clean water into toxic wastewater, much of which must be permanently disposed of in deep injection wells, taking billions of gallons out of the water supply annually.
Nationally, nearly half of all fracking wells are located in regions with very limited water supplies. A study by Ceres, a coalition of business and environmental interests, found that nearly 47 percent of wells fracked from January 2011 through September 2012 were located in areas with “high or extremely high water stress.”
Absent policies to rein in fracking, the amount of water it consumes is likely to ramp up. The trend is disturbing.
Policymakers would rather move past environmental questions and focus instead on ones of economic growth, revenue, geopolitics and so on. As the impact of fracking on water availability for farm irrigation and communities grows more acute, the task of maintaining a reasonable balance between energy production and environmental stewardship will become more daunting.