Mountain States

*UPDATE* Back to the Future: Ceres Water Report Relies on Old Understanding of Issue

UPDATE (5:16pm ET, 7/1/2013): A recent column in the Wall Street Journal takes another look at the CERES report on water usage, and finds that the amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing pales in comparison to landscaping and irrigation. According to the author, Rusty Todd:

“Nationwide, the EPA estimates that landscape irrigation consumes about nine billion gallons of water a day. That’s more than three trillion gallons a year, or more than 20 times its highest estimate for the amount of water used annually in fracking.” 

We’re not knocking a nice, green lawn, but this is yet another example to help put water usage numbers into perspective. As regulators and officials have repeatedly stated, the amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing is relatively small – often less than one percent of total water use.

The WSJ columnists aren’t the only folks weighing in on the water usage debate. The column notes that the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas found that, in Texas, about a fifth of the water used in hydraulic fracturing is recycled water, or brackish fluid. That’s not exactly the clean drinking water that activists like to claim oil and natural gas operators are monopolizing, but it does show the lengths to which the industry is going to reduce impacts.

Additionally, due to constant advances in technology and operating procedures, the Bureau assumes that the percentage of recycled water will only increase over the next few years.

—Original post, May 20, 2013—

When EID first made its way onto the scene back in the days of antiquity known as 2009, folks who were against developing natural gas (we didn’t even know about the oil!) from shale frequently cited the volume of water required to fracture the well as the number one reason to oppose those activities.

The playbook usually went like this: 1) declare loudly that hydraulic fracturing consumes millions of gallons of water per well; 2) add up every well currently in the ground to the number of wells you believe will be drilled in the future, producing an astronomical figure (usually in the trillions) seemingly representing the total number of gallons that will be “lost” to the fracturing process; 3) provide no context or perspective on those volumes compared to the water requirements of other industries;4) deny firmly that any technology for reusing or recycling that water – or even using non-potable water instead — is being used, or even exists; and finally, 5) insist to all who will listen that, once that water is lost, it is “forever removed” from the hydrological cycle – never to be accessed by humans again.

Four years now removed from EID’s launch, and the good news is that we’ve seen a good bit of evolution on the issue of water – so much so, in fact, that most activists have completely abandoned the talking point, recognizing (rightly) that their case is weakened considerably owing to the recent and continuing advances in water usage, treatment and recycling technologies to which we provide links above.

Of course, not all anti-shale groups have gotten the memo. Earlier this month, a group calling itself the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) released a report on water and hydraulic fracturing that could have just as easily been produced in 2008 – with almost no recognition at all of any of the advances that have been made in the water space over the course of just the past five years.

EID took a closer look at that report, and did what we could to bring WORC up to speed. Earlier this year, we also released a fact-sheet — “Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Use: Get the Facts” – that sought to provide some additional context on how water use in oil and natural gas production compares to other industries. Unfortunately, though, some groups are still determined to draw attention to themselves by writing scary-sounding reports on water use and hydraulic fracturing, when the reality isn’t scary at all.

Take the Boston-based “sustainability” group called Ceres and its “Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Stress: Growing Competitive Pressures for Water” report. Here are some of the biggest problems in that report:

#1 Arbitrarily picking on oil and gas

Here is the highly original conclusion of the Ceres report:

“The bottom line: shale energy development cannot grow without water, but in order to do so the industry’s water needs and impacts need to be better understood, measured and managed.”

Actually, you can say that about almost any industry that exists in the world. Consider the following statement from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Science School:

“Probably every manufactured product uses water during some part of the production process. Industrial water use includes water used for such purposes as fabricating, processing, washing, diluting, cooling, or transporting a product; incorporating water into a product; or for sanitation needs within the manufacturing facility. Some industries that use large amounts of water produce such commodities as food, paper, chemicals, refined petroleum, or primary metals.”

At the risk of stating the obvious: no industry can grow without water, and therefore the water needs and impacts of all industries need to be understood, measured and managed.

#2 Relying on water-management data, then pretending water isn’t being managed

Strangely enough, water use is already being measured and managed. It has been for many years: in all 50 states. But don’t take our word for it. Check out this database of water regulations from the National Council of State Legislatures. And this federal report from the USGS, which provides data down to the county level.

In fact, if water use wasn’t being measured and managed, Ceres could not have written its report. The report’s central claim is that during an 18-month period, just under half the shale gas and shale oil wells developed in the U.S. were drilled “in water basins with high or extremely high water stress.” Based on data in the Ceres report, “high water stress” means 40 percent to 80 percent of the available water “is already being withdrawn for municipal, industrial and agricultural uses.” As for “extremely high stress,” that’s when more than 80 percent of available water is being used for towns and cities, factories and other industrial plants, and farms.

So, Ceres has total confidence in the ability of state regulators, federal officials and others to measure and manage water consumption by municipal, industrial and agricultural users. But in the same breath, Ceres suggests those same state and federal officials can’t measure and manage water use by another industrial user – oil and gas companies. That double standard is completely unsupported by the facts.

For example, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Ground Water Protection Council – which represents the state regulatory agencies charged with protecting and conserving this precious natural resource – published a study in 2009 which found:

“The amount of water needed to drill and fracture a horizontal shale gas well generally ranges from about 2 million to 4 million gallons, depending on the basin and formation characteristics. While these volumes may seem very large, they are small by comparison to some other uses of water, such as agriculture, electric power generation, and municipalities … Calculations indicate that water use for shale gas development will range from less than 0.1% to 0.8% of total water use by basin.”

Just last year, the state of Colorado – which was given special attention in the Ceres paper – released a report on hydraulic fracturing water consumption. Colorado officials found it accounted for “slightly less than one-tenth of one percent of the total water used” in the state, and by 2015, it should be “slightly more than one-tenth of one percent of the total water used.” To put that in perspective, imagine a one-gallon jug of water represents all the water used in Colorado. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are 15,140 drops in a gallon. One tenth of one percent of that amount is roughly 15 drops.

In Texas, which also received special attention from Ceres, state officials report that “water needs are expected to increase most in the area of municipal water use in the coming decades,” while the mining category – which covers a range of activities including oil and gas development and hydraulic fracturing – remains “less than one percent of statewide water use, although percentages can be larger in some localized areas.”

And how do Texas officials know about those higher local percentages? Because the Texas Water Development Board commissioned a study to prepare for an expected increase in hydraulic fracturing between now and 2020. According to the TWRB’s 2012 State Water Plan, “[f]uture trends in these types of water use will be monitored closely in the upcoming planning process.”

But here’s the TWRB’s current projection:

“The mining category is the smallest of the water user categories and is expected to decline 1 percent from 296,230 acre-feet to 292,294 acre-feet between 2010 and 2060.”

That’s right, a one percent decrease. Those same TWRB projections show a 73 percent increase in municipal water use over the next 50 years, a 67 percent increase in manufacturing water use, and the amount of water used by power plants is expected to more than double.

So it turns out state and federal water officials – who enforce the laws and regulations that govern water use – are absolutely measuring and managing how much water is used by different industries and different sectors of the economy, including oil and gas companies. Not only that, when you look at current and projected water use, hydraulic fracturing is still a tiny fraction of present and future consumption.

There’s nothing scary about that, of course, and so you’ll find almost none of this highly relevant context in the Ceres report.

#3 Distorting their own research

On the website promoting the Ceres report, and in the text of the report itself, the authors say the following:

One can see that almost half (47 percent) of U.S. shale gas and oil wells are being developed in regions with high to extremely high water stress. This means that more than 80 percent of the annual available water is being withdrawn by municipal, industrial and agricultural users in these regions.

That’s a misrepresentation of their own research. Remember, an area of “high water stress” is when 40 percent of the water is already consumed by municipal, industrial and agricultural users, and the threshold for “extreme high water stress” is 80 percent.

So it’s simply wrong for Ceres to claim it found 47 percent of shale gas and shale oil development took place in areas where 80 percent or more of the water was already being used. Based on the number in the report, the actual finding was 41 percent.

So, why would Ceres misrepresent its own research for the sake of six percentage points? Perhaps because once you concede that significantly less than half of shale development is taking place in areas of extreme high water stress – not almost half – people might start to wonder where the majority of shale development is actually taking place.

Well, based on the Ceres research, the majority (53 percent) of shale gas and shale oil wells are being developed in areas where municipal, industrial and agricultural users consume 40 percent or less of the available water.

In other words, the Ceres report finds that more than half the nation’s hydraulic fracturing takes place in areas where water is plentiful and there is relatively little competition for supplies.

Yet, for some reason, that wasn’t the conclusion of the Ceres report, and it certainly wasn’t mentioned in the press release that announced the report to the world. This huge and frightening distortion of the group’s own research started the Energy In Depth research team wondering, “Who wrote this stuff?” And that led us right to the next problem with the report

#4 Failure to disclose opposition to oil and gas

Here’s how Ceres identifies itself on page 2 of the report:

“Ceres is a nonprofit organization mobilizing business leadership on sustainability challenges such as climate change and water scarcity.”

While that may sound like the description of a trade association for businesspeople who care about the environment, the reality is quite different.

While the Ceres coalition does include some institutional investors – mostly public-employee pension funds – it also has large number of activist groups that oppose the oil and gas industry. Here’s what some Ceres members have said about our industry and/or hydraulic fracturing:

Friends of the Earth:

“In the past few years, the oil and gas industry has drilled thousands of new wells using a perilous extraction process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. To frack an oil or gas well, a massive volume of water and a toxic chemical soup are injected underground at high pressures to break up rock formations, allowing oil or gas to flow up the well.

Fracking threatens the air we breathe, the water we drink, the communities we call home and the climate on which we depend.”

National Wildlife Federation:

“You wouldn’t let a loved one drink water so contaminated that it was flammable, right? And yet, thousands of animals like cattle, fish, frogs and deer have died after drinking water poisoned by a secret concoction of toxic ingredients — also known as fracking fluid. …

Despite the alarming concerns, the industry operates with almost no federal oversight and doesn’t have to disclose what chemicals they’re pumping into our waterways.”

Natural Resources Defense Council:

“Natural gas producers have been running roughshod over communities across the country with their extraction and production activities for too long, resulting in contaminated water supplies, dangerous air pollution, destroyed streams, and devastated landscapes. Weak safeguards and inadequate oversight fail to protect our communities from harm by the rapid expansion of fossil fuel production using hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking.’”

Rainforest Action Network:

“We have grown increasingly concerned about the prevalence of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ a technique used to mine natural gas. We’ve watched movies like Split Estate and Gasland, which explain the serious health risks associated with fracking…”

Sierra Club:

“Natural gas drillers exploit government loopholes, ignore decades-old environmental protections, and disregard the health of entire communities. “Fracking,” a violent process that dislodges gas deposits from shale rock formations, is known to contaminate drinking water, pollute the air, and cause earthquakes.”

Nowhere in the Ceres report on water use and hydraulic fracturing will you find any disclosure of its membership, or their openly hostility towards the oil and gas industry. But that’s not all.

Besides members, Ceres also has donors — and you’ll be surprised to learn that they include some well-known funders of activism that targets the oil and gas industry, and especially the use of hydraulic fracturing. According to the group’s last annual report, those donors include the Park Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. But again, that’s something you won’t find disclosed in the Ceres report on water use and hydraulic fracturing.

And then there’s one of the co-authors of the study, Ryan Salmon. Before joining Ceres, he worked as an energy policy advisor for the National Wildlife Federation. Remember, that’s same group that claims “thousands of cattle, fish, frogs and deer have died” because of hydraulic fracturing, and clings to the belief that the oil and gas industry “operates with almost no federal oversight and doesn’t have to disclose what chemicals they’re pumping into our waterways.” Was that disclosed in the front matter of the report? No.

Water use is a serious issue that should concern citizens, public officials and the business community. But Ceres pretty clearly ignored the facts and decided to frighten the public about hydraulic fracturing because its members, donors, and even one of the report’s authors, have an ideological objection to the oil and gas industry. They just don’t like us and want to shut us down.

They’re entitled to their opinion, of course, and they can put out any kind of report they want. But when they hide their mistakes and their obvious bias against the industry from their readers, they are simply out to mislead the public.


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