EWG Cherry Picks Data to Scare the Public about Fracking and Water Use
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently published a report that muddies our understanding of the amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing. As most of us know, the water consumed by shale development – including hydraulic fracturing – constitutes only a fraction of one percent of all the water used in the United States.
More specifically, EWG’s report focuses on a small number of wells that use more water than average – ignoring the thousands of wells that use far less than average. Using the popular activist trick of giving scary sounding names to common things to induce fear in the public, the EWG has dubbed these “monster wells.”
Two important points need to be made.
First, the existence of wells capable of handling significantly larger amounts of water in a single well is something environmentalists who actually understand the fracturing process should probably celebrate, because it means less land disturbance.
The relevant metric isn’t water use per well, but energy produced per gallon of water used. While these large wells do require more water, they’re also producing a lot more energy than is developed from a typical well. The alternative is drilling more wells on the surface, creating more well pads and having a correspondingly greater impact on the land.
For example, one of the wells listed by EWG in Panola County, Tex., used over 20 million gallons of water. But according to data from the Texas Railroad Commission, that one well produced enough natural gas in 2013 to meet the demand of more than 200 American homes.
It is also well understood, by environmentalists and regulators alike, that one of the key benefits of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing is that they significantly reduce land impacts.
Furthermore, EWG embarrasses itself with its failure to grasp basic math. From the report:
“But data reported and verified by the industry itself reveal that those ‘typical’ amounts are hardly the upper limit.”
Correct. By definition, a typical amount isn’t at the upper or lower limit. That’s why it is “typical.” And that is the substance of EWG’s “findings” and the media effort that surrounded them.
That brings us to our second point: the existence of wells that use more water than average in no way changes the facts about water used in hydraulic fracturing. Oil and gas development uses a fraction of one percent of total water use, even in the most prolific oil and gas states.
That’s actually something that EWG addresses in its report, albeit in a feeble attempt to discredit that fact. From the EWG report:
When it’s confronted with the growing concern about the vast volumes of water used in hydraulic fracturing of gas and oil wells, industry tries to dodge the question.
The American Petroleum Institute (API) points out that drilling wells with hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technology, commonly called “fracking,” consumes far less water than other commonplace activities such as raising livestock, irrigating crops or even watering golf courses. According to the Institute, the amount of water used to frack one natural gas well “typically is the equivalent of three to six Olympic swimming pools.”
Ignoring for a moment that the second paragraph contradicts EWG’s suggestion that the industry “tries to dodge the question,” the fact is that the amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing is known, is a matter of public record, and is negligible compared to most other uses of water.
According to the Groundwater Protection Council (GWPC), a non-profit association of state agencies responsible for environmental safeguards related to ground water:
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. (emphasis added)
Further, hydraulic fracturing uses 0.3 percent of total U.S. freshwater consumption. That number is inclusive of outliers on both extremes – wells that use far more water or far less water than the average.
In California, the average hydraulic fracturing job uses a mere 130,000 gallons of water, about one-fifth the amount of water it takes to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. For more perspective, California fracking uses 303 acre-feet of water in a year; agriculture used 34 million acre-feet.
EWG has tried to manufacture a “scary” scenario simply by noting that there are some wells that use more water than the average. That this actually is better for the environment seems of little concern to EWG. In the end, this report is a perfect indication of the lengths anti-industry activists will go simply to foment doubt and fear about hydraulic fracturing – a routine and proven well-completion technique that has been repeatedly confirmed safe and effective by regulators and scientists.