Clearing Up the Confusion about Water and Energy Development in California – Part I

Disputes over water have been a central element of California politics since the “water wars” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that were sparked by William Mulholland’s famous aqueduct, which diverted water from Eastern to Southern California (and which was dramatized, with artistic license, in the 1974 Roman Polanski film “Chinatown.”)

Today, California faces its worst drought in memory and Governor Jerry Brown has ordered new and unprecedented restrictions on water use. It is proper in the midst of a drought that any and all uses of water – including water used in oil and gas development — should be scrutinized.

Unfortunately, anti-industry activists are trying to use the drought as an opportunity to advance an ideological agenda against energy production. They have been working to spread misinformation about how water is used in oil and gas production generally, and how much is used in the well-completion technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

In Part I of this series, we will examine the facts on water use and oil and gas development in California. Part II examines issues surrounding water safety.

Water Use

Oil Production

The role that water plays in oil production is largely misunderstood.

 Many don’t realize that oil production in California is, in fact, mostly water production. According to the California Department of Conservation (DOC), the production of a barrel of oil from deep underground results in the production of an average of 15 barrels of water. This is brackish-to-salty water that has been buried for millions of years in its geologic zone along with oil or gas and it was not previously part of the water cycle. Hydrocarbons are removed from the water and it is then put to a variety of productive uses.

Most frequently, this “produced” water is re-injected into the geologic formation from which it came. This water goes back into the ground cleaner than when it came out. Produced water is also used, sometimes in the form of steam, to help enhance oil recovery and produce even more energy for Californians.

But there is yet another use for some of this produced water that is critically important during the drought.

Farmers in the Central Valley normally rely heavily on California’s snowpack to sustain them throughout the year, but in addition water produced during oil production is an important part of agriculture’s water supply and has been for more than 15 years.

This is possible because produced water is sometimes clean enough – once oil or gas is removed and it undergoes treatment – that it can be used by California’s agriculture industry for crop irrigation, mitigating the impact of the drought and helping the industry to produce the food and fiber that, like energy, is one of the backbones of our economy.

With this year’s snowpack dangerously low, Kern County energy companies are working harder than ever with the local water district to provide as much help to farmers as possible.

In fact, last year Kern County energy producers provided more than 10 billion gallons of water (31,658 acre feet) to the agriculture industry to help farmers feeling the brunt of reductions in their water supply. 

 A recent article in Newsweek reported:

 “Chevron is selling about 500,000 barrels of water per day, or 21 million gallons, back to the Cawelo Water District—the local water district that delivers water to farmers within a seven-mile slice of Kern County—at an undisclosed amount, but “essentially ‘at cost,’” according to Chevron spokesman Cameron Van Ast. In a time when freshwater in the Central Valley is selling at up to 10 times the typical cost, it’s a good deal for farmers.”

Hydraulic Fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing uses a negligible amount of water and is significantly less water-intensive in California than elsewhere in the country. This is due primarily to our unique geology.

According to data from the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), all of the hydraulic fracturing in the state last year used 214-acre feet of water, about 89 fewer acre-feet (about 30 million gallons) than was used in 2013 based on totals compiled from the This is equivalent to the amount of water that just one of California’s 1,100 golf courses uses in a year. A single hydraulic fracturing operation, which typically takes place within a single day, used around 100,000 gallons of water, or one-sixth of an Olympic-sized swimming pool –not the millions of gallons that anti-fracking activists routinely claim.

Further, recall that the industry produces 31,000 acre-feet that is put to productive use by the agriculture industry.

As Dr. Steve Bohlen, head of the state’s Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources, said in a recent Reuters article:

 “Hydraulic fracturing uses a relatively small amount of water – the equivalent 514 households annually.”

If this still sounds like a lot, consider that, in 2012, residential lawns drank up 8.7 million acre-feet (2.8 trillion gallons), and agriculture used 34 million acre-feet (11 trillion gallons). In fact, statewide water usage for fracking is nearly eight-times less than the water used in all 43,000 residential pools in Los Angeles.

As environmental reporter — and fracking skeptic — Chris Clarke recently wrote:

“The water used for fracking in 2014 is just .00069 percent of California’s total water consumption. Or put another way: If all the water used by California society in 2014 was represented by a bank account totaling $10,000, the amount we spent on fracking last year was just under seven cents. Puts those 214 acre-feet in perspective, no?

Meanwhile, in what the state considers a normal water year — like the precipitous 2010 — Californians benefit from the use of 41.1 million acre-   feet. About 8 million acre-feet of that was used in urban settings, including households, factories, and commercial settings. The rest, more than 33 million acre-feet was used to irrigate crops. Fracking, with its 214 acre-feet, doesn’t even make the graph.

By comparison, the DWR estimates that the typical California household loses about 30.7 gallons per day to leaky pipes and fixtures, which if you multiply by California’s 12.5 million households (as of the 2010 Census) comes out to more than 431,000 acre-feet completely wasted each year, and that’s wastage we could end right now.”

This week, a Washington Post story quotes a blog by Oregon State University hydrologist Michael Campana:

“Fracking accounts for 0.00062% (or 0.0000062) of the state’s annual freshwater withdrawals. A lot of water? Not in my book. In fact, I thought there was an error — that the figure should have been 70M gallons per day.

Since the media started shedding light on the actual amount of water used for fracking in California, honest activists have realized that the “water use” argument against fracking is a non-starter. Witness this tweet from R.L. Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus:

For more information, see this EID infographic, which shows that the water used in fracking is so small it pales in comparison to other uses

Given these facts, it would be misguided to put restrictions on a practice that helps us keep energy affordable and helps to provide good-paying jobs, especially when the practice has an almost immeasurably small impact on our water supply.


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