Appalachian Basin

Expert: Shale Gas Water Use is Comparatively Small

In a recent Washington & Jefferson College presentation titled, “Thirst for Power: the Nexus of Energy & Water”, Michael Webber detailed the relationship between energy production, electricity generation and it’s need for water.  Webber traveled from the University of Texas at Austin, where he is the deputy director of the Energy Institute and an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

During his presentation Webber covered water use across a multitude of energy sources, but focused a good deal of time talking about shale development, something we’ve covered many times at EID. See here, here, and here.

To start, Webber stated:

“Generally I think the concerns about fracking are overblown. There are concerns with the overall process of hydraulic fracturing, but not the fracking itself.  The fracking thousands of feet below the aquifer is not a big deal.” (7:20)

Webber’s comment here falls in line with what we’ve been hearing from experts across the country for a long time.  While there are risks involved with all energy development, these risks can and are being mitigated.

When looking at water consumption for shale development, we need to look at the entire process from production to end use – electricity generation, residential, industrial and commercial.  According to Webber, biofuels actually use the most water per gallon of oil or gas (gal/gal) equivalent produced, the break down looks like this (10:00):

  • Conventional oil: 1-5 gal/gal
  • Unconventional: 5-10 gal/gal
  • Irrigated Corn (Bio Fuel): 500-2000 gal/gal
  • Algae: 10,000-100,000 gal/gal

Here’s another breakdown based on water used per unit of energy (in million BTUs, or MMBTU):

  • Shale Gas Consumes: 2-8 Gal Water/MMBTU
  • Corn Ethanol Consumes: More than 2,500 Gal Water/MMBTU

Looking at the hydraulic fracturing process, yes, the water quantities used may seem large. But to get a clear picture, we need to look at the total end use. As Webber explained:

“If we use natural gas for electricity generation with a combined cycle power plant, which is newer and more efficient, you save half the amount of water you would normally use…  Also, since a natural gas power plant is partially aired cooled you save water there that would normally be used to help cool plants fired by traditional fuels. Then another drop in water use by avoided air emissions control because natural gas doesn’t need air emission controls the way traditional sources do.” (11:45)

According to Webber, “When we look at the total life cycle in shale development and natural gas end use for electricity generation, it is an advantage from a water use perspective.”  And, as operators continue to recycle their water, overall consumption will continue to decline.

Shale development across the United States has spurred a manufacturing renaissance, helped decrease our air emissions, put money back in Americans’ pockets – and now it’s actually helping put more water back into our environment, when natural gas is used for power generation. With more power plants converting to cleaner and cheaper natural gas, we can expect to see these benefits for decades to come.


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