Denton Record-Chronicle Omits Key Facts about Water Use and Fracking
A recent series of articles from the Denton Record-Chronicle has examined drought and water use issues in north Texas, with one particular story focusing on oil and gas activity. The article claims the industry has “sucked billions of gallons of water” from a regional aquifer, putting the reservoir at “far greater risk of running dry” than what has occurred as a result of a recent drought. But a closer examination of publicly available records reveals that the Record-Chronicle‘s suggestions are considerably off base, and that many of the unchallenged claims cited in the article are simply not supported by the data.
Hydraulic fracturing — the central element of oil and gas activity examined by the Record-Chronicle — accounts for only about 0.5 percent of all the water used across Texas. Oil and gas activity as a whole is also comparatively small. As the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council observed last year:
“[I]rrigation is the biggest user of water in Texas, accounting for 61 percent. Municipal use follows with 27 percent, then manufacturing at 6 percent, steam electric power at 3 percent and livestock at 2 percent. The last 1 percent is made up of oil and gas and other mining activities.”
As University of Texas professor Rusty Todd wrote last summer in the Wall Street Journal: “lawns [in Texas] consume roughly 18 times more water than fracking does.”
Granted, these facts refer to statewide averages, and individual regions or counties could have higher or lower relative usage rates. But they also should raise questions immediately when someone suggests that “fracking” is causing aquifer depletion in Texas. To explore that further, however, let’s take a look at some of the specific allegations printed by the Record-Chronicle, and compare those claims against actual water usage data.
DR-C: “But now Fender and many others who depend on the Trinity Aquifer, their only source of water, fear the aquifer might be in mortal danger. Since 2005, oil and gas drilling in Denton, Wise and Montague counties has sucked billions of gallons of water from the Trinity Aquifer. … Hydraulic fracturing uses an average of 4.5 million gallons of water to extract gas from just one well — more water than is used annually by some of the smaller communities in Montague County and other rural counties across North Texas.”
FACT: According to the Texas Water Development Board, virtually every major industry in the area has used “billions of gallons of water” since 2005, many of which consumed far more than oil and gas activity. Much of the story focuses on Montague County, and below is a water use chart for that county using data directly from the TWDB:
Over the past half decade in Montague County, municipal use has dwarfed mining activities, and even livestock required at least 700 million more gallons of water than oil and gas development since 2005. There’s no mention of any of that in the story, just the suggestion that all claims challenging the linkage of oil and gas activity to depleted water levels are little more than “industry denials” — as if it’s the industry rejecting the truth.
The data are even more stark in Denton County:
Since 2005, municipal water use in Denton County has been fifty times higher than oil and gas development. Livestock and irrigation activities accounted for approximately 47 percent more water usage than mining activities.
In Wise County, mining activities have been the highest individual source of water demand since 2005, but they still account for less than half of all water used:
The story could have included the fact that cattle and cities have “sucked” far more water from surface and ground water sources in the regions cited than did oil and gas development. For reasons we cannot explain, it did not.
DR-C: “The water table measurements — revealed in digital numbers on his sonar device — suggest that aquifer water levels are dropping so rapidly that the six-year-old drought afflicting the area can’t be held solely responsible. And his findings have convinced most members of the property owners association that gas drillers’ industrial-powered extraction from the aquifer is putting their underground reservoir at far greater risk of running dry than the drought. ‘They’re definitely responsible,’ says Robert McPhee, president of Montague County Property Owners Association.”
FACT: Unfortunately, the Record-Chronicle chose not to examine the accuracy of the “definitely responsible” for groundwater depletion claim, opting instead to print it without scrutiny.
According to the Texas Water Development Board, in 2011, only 20 percent of the industry’s water use for fracking in the Barnett Shale came from groundwater. In Montague County specifically, groundwater usage for mining (which includes all oil and gas activity, not just hydraulic fracturing) was higher, but still less than half of the total water consumed by mining operations. Most of the water used for mining activities comes from surface waters, not groundwater.
Clearly, the reader is supposed to think that the industry is depleting the aquifer with all of this “industrial-powered extraction,” but the paper never once saw fit to ask if that conclusion could be derived from actual data.
DR-C: “According to the Texas Water Development Board, the Trinity, which provides water for 61 counties (including Montague) in the central and northeastern sections of the state, is in greater jeopardy than all of Texas’ other underground reservoirs.”
FACT: As explained above, data from the TWDB show conclusively that municipal water usage far outstrips demand from oil and gas activities. Why is that important here? Because the Dallas-Fort Worth region is the tenth fastest growing metropolitan area in the entire country, according to Forbes. In its 2011-2012 ranking, Forbes placed DFW as the fifth fastest growing region. Since 2000, the population of the Metroplex has grown by nearly 30 percent.
Meanwhile, in discussing recent declines in the Trinity, the TWDB made the following observation:
“Some of the state’s largest water level declines, ranging from 350 to more than 1,000 feet, have occurred in counties along the IH-35 corridor from McLennan County to Grayson County. These declines are primarily attributed to municipal pumping, but they have slowed over the past decade as a result of increasing reliance on surface water.” (emphasis added)
The Record-Chronicle never once mentioned the fact that municipal use, not oil and gas activity, was the primary reason for recent declines in the Trinity aquifer.
The TWDB also recently released its updated projections of water use from oil and gas activities in the Barnett Shale, which show a steady decline in nearly every scenario modeled. The only exception refers to the “high” water use scenario, which is markedly different from what the TWDB deems the “most likely,” and even that high end estimate shows a significant decline in water use in the coming decades. Here’s the graph:
If the Trinity aquifer is in jeopardy today or in the coming decades, it’s certainly not because “fracking” is consuming increasing quantities of water.
DR-C: “Bob Patterson, director of the groundwater district, told local residents that 25 oil and gas companies drilling in Montague County had extracted nearly 3 billion gallons of groundwater since 2009. The county’s 19,710 residents used 388 million gallons during the same time period, he reported.”
FACT: It would be interesting to see where Mr. Patterson obtained his data (or from where the Record-Chronicle pulled this content), because information directly from the state contradicts these figures. According to the Record-Chronicle‘s account, these remarks were given in September 2012, so annual data for 2012 were not yet available. And as the chart above clearly indicates, since 2009, municipal water usage in Montague County was over 50 percent higher than what was used for mining activities. Mining activities in Montague County have used roughly 1.9 billion gallons of water since 2009, whereas municipal usage has accounted for more than three billion gallons over the same time period.
Unless Mr. Patterson was referencing a small subset of residential use, and also somehow inflating the usage numbers for the oil and gas industry, the data clearly tell a different story.
Notably, in August 2011 — just one year before the remarks cited by the Record-Chronicle — Patterson told the media: “We are getting along very well with the oil and gas industry.” According to at least one account, he was also shocked to see that oil and gas development was not even close to being the largest water user in his district:
“Patterson said when they began metering, he expected to see that industry was the largest consumer of water. But they account for less than one quarter of the water from his district, he said. Municipalities drew three times the water industry did.” (emphasis added)
DR-C: “Eudey removes his hat and rubs his bloodshot eyes. He’s been spending most of his nights reading EOG water well reports. Before EOG’s water wells appeared, Eudey and his neighbors were able to take showers and wash a load of laundry while watering their lawns. Now, they claim there’s not enough water to take a bath.”
FACT: Energy In Depth reached out to the operator, EOG Resources, which said that the source of water for EOG’s operations is not the same aquifer that Mr. Eudey uses for his home. “The landowners’ water wells draw water from different water zones than the zone being accessed by water wells drilled by EOG in the area,” the company noted in a statement.
Oddly enough, the Record-Chronicle alluded to this very fact when it noted that “drillers sink wells that are typically much deeper than the average homeowner’s,” but the article failed to delineate the different water zones. Instead, the reader is left thinking that companies are “sucking” water from the same aquifer that residents tapped with their private water wells, just at a greater depth. In this case (and many others), that’s simply not true.
DR-C: “The amount of contaminates [sic] and the types of chemicals used in the fracking process are points of contention. Some oil and gas companies are releasing information about chemicals on websites such as FracFocus.org.”
FACT: “Some” is an interesting word choice, considering the fact that Texas requires oil and gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use on FracFocus.org. As NPR reported two and a half years ago:
The Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees drilling in the state, passed new rules requiring the disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) today. The rules were proposed by the state legislature earlier this year and signed into law by Governor Rick Perry this summer. Companies will have to disclose on the website FracFocus what chemicals they use for fracking in Texas.
Any wells that have an initial drilling permit from February 1, 2012 on will have to make the disclosure. The commission notes in a release that ‘before the rule passed, Texas operators conducting hydraulic fracturing were voluntarily entering chemical data into the public website FracFocus for about half of all wells in Texas undergoing hydraulic fracturing,’ the commission said in a statement. (emphasis added)
DR-C: “‘We don’t really know how much they are reusing,’ says Sharon Wilson, of Bluedaze Drilling Reform, a website that focuses on issues concerning the oil and gas industry. ‘It’s not clear either if it’s a good idea to use this flowback for fracking. When they mix these chemicals together and send it down the hole, they become something else, and when they flow back they bring other stuff with them, like radioactive material or arsenic. It’s not really clear that reusing the water is a good idea.'”
FACT: Ms. Wilson does indeed operate that website, but what the paper refused to disclose is that she’s also an organizer for the aggressively anti-fracking group Earthworks. The fact that the Record-Chronicle wanted its readers to think she was a cautious outside observer, and not employed by a group committed to banning fracking (in a story about fracking), speaks volumes. Would the paper have described an oil and gas executive who resides in the area as merely a “concerned citizen”?
DR-C: “A recent survey by the Texas Water Development Board found that only a fraction of drillers are recycling frack water. In Midland, for example, recycled water accounts for just 2 percent of total water used for drilling.”
FACT: The figure “2 percent” suggests oil and gas companies are not only to using large quantities of water, but also sourcing it from freshwater sources. Contrary to that narrative, the Texas Water Development Board found that operators in the Midland area get nearly one-third of their water from brackish sources, not fresh water. In fact, farther west within the highly productive Permian Basin, as much as 80 percent of the water used for hydraulic fracturing is from brackish sources, not fresh water.
By the end of the decade, according to the TWDB, approximately 25 percent of the water used for hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett Shale will come from recycled or brackish sources.
No doubt this would have been helpful context for the DRC’s readers, especially alongside the alarmist and unchallenged accusation that the oil and gas industry is “destroying the water for human consumption.”
DR-C: “If it runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the [sand] mining operation on the Cooke and Montague county line would require more than 5 million gallons of water a day, or about 2 billion gallons a year, according to some estimates. That would be enough water to sustain residents in drought-stricken towns like Robert Lee, Rosston or Spicewood Beach for several years.”
FACT: The described sand facility will not only be obtaining its water from non-potable sources, but will also be recycling nearly all of the water used. As described clearly on the project’s description page:
“Over 90 percent of the water to be used at the sand processing facility will be recycled and reused. This brackish water does not come from the shallow Trinity Aquifer but rather from wells that are 400 to 600 feet deep. The water to be used in the sand operation is not suitable for human consumption.” (emphasis added)
Despite spending several paragraphs highlighting concerns about the sand facility depleting residents’ drinking water supplies, the Record-Chronicle never saw fit to explain that the water is not even being sourced from the same aquifer, nor did it bother to mention that the deeper water source for the sand operation (and other projects) is not potable.
DR-C: “The meeting was called to discuss Forestburg’s dwindling water resources, a proposal to build a second water well and the oil and gas industry’s consumption of the county’s water supply. Last year, the industry accounted for 91 percent of total water usage in Montague County, according to the Bowie News.”
FACT: The statistic “91 percent” is very specific, and also very easy to fact check. Curiously, Earthworks made the exact same claim — “Last year the industry used almost 91% of the water used in Montague County” — in a 2011 blog post. Fort Worth Weekly cited the Bowie News for the same “91 percent” figure in a story last December. This suggests that either oil and gas development has been continuously consuming more than 90 percent of the county’s water, or the fact checkers didn’t do an adequate job “checking” anything.
According to the Texas Water Development Board, all mining activities (including oil and gas) accounted for 40 percent of total water usage in Montague County in 2011 (oil and gas is one of the largest industries in the county, which has a population of about 20,000). In 2010, water used for mining was less than half of municipal use alone. The Texas Tribune, looking partially at data from the TWDB, concluded:
“Fracking operations [in Montague County] in 2012 used about one-third the amount of water the entire county, with a population of about 20,000, used in 2011.” (emphasis added)
Granted, these water use numbers are still comparatively high, especially when you consider that hydraulic fracturing only accounts for about 0.5 percent of total water use across the state of Texas. But it’s clear that, no matter how you slice it, the oil and gas industry did not use 91 percent of all the water used in Montague County last year — whenever that “year” may be.
Looking ahead, the TWDB projects that mining activities in Montague County will account for a little less than 40 percent of total water use in 2020, falling to 31 percent in 2030, 22 percent in 2040, and then falling to about 10 percent thereafter. Again, these are not insignificant usage numbers, but they are a far cry from the suggestion that oil and gas activity accounts for nearly all or even most of the county’s water use. It does not.
In fact, a recent report compiled by the anti-oil and gas activist group CERES estimated that nationally, the oil and gas industry used about 97 billion gallons of water in the three year period from 2011 through 2013. Interestingly, the TWDB released a report in 2012 in which it estimated municipal water loss from local water system leakage came to more than 225 billion gallons of water during the single year of 2010. That was compiled from a survey to which only 54 percent of the state’s municipalities responded.
So if we trust CERES’ numbers, the TWDB finding is that municipal water losses in Texas alone outstripped total national annual oil and gas industry usage by a factor of about 7-to-1. Anyone interested in addressing Texas’s looming water issues in any real way – including the Denton Record-Chronicle – might want to first ask his or her city’s leaders what they are doing to fix leaks in their municipal water systems, and then go from there.