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Fracking Is Already Straining U.S. Water Supplies

Some of America's most intensive oil and gas development is occurring in drought-prone regions where water is scarce.
 
 
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As the level of hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells in the United States has intensified in recent years, much of the mounting public concern has centered on fears that underground water supplies could be contaminated with the toxic chemicals used in the well-stimulation technique that cracks rock formations and releases trapped oil and gas. But in some parts of the country, worries are also growing about fracking’s effect on water supply, as the water-intensive process stirs competition for the resources already stretched thin by drought or other factors.

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.

“Given projected sharp increases in production in the coming years and the potentially intense nature of local water demands, competition and conflicts over water should be a growing concern for companies, policymakers and investors,” the Ceres report concluded. It goes on to say that:

Prolonged drought conditions in many parts of Texas and Colorado last summer created increased competition and conflict between farmers, communities and energy developers, which is only likely to continue. … Even in wetter regions of the northeast United States, dozens of water permits granted to operators had to be withdrawn last summer due to low levels in environmentally vulnerable headwater streams.

Another recent study by the University of Texas looked at past and projected water use for fracking in the Barnett, Eagle Ford, and Haynesville shale plays in Texas, and found that fracking in 2011 was using more than twice as much water in the state as it was three years earlier. In Dimmit County, home to the Eagle Ford shale development in South Texas, fracking accounted for nearly a quarter of overall water consumption in 2011 and is expected to grow to a third in a few years, according to the study.

Moreover, an April report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils found that fracking is using 7 billion gallons of water a year in four western states: Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and North Dakota. “Fracking’s growing demand for water can threaten availability of water for agriculture and western rural communities,” said Bob Leresche, a Wyoming resident and board member of the group.

The national oil and gas trade association, American Petroleum Institute, correctly notes that the “industry’s water use is small when compared to other industrial and recreational activities.” But even though hydraulic fracturing usually accounts for just 1 percent or 2 percent of states’ overall water use, the Ceres study notes that “it can be much higher at the local level, increasing competition for scarce supplies.”

 
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