Important Context on USGS’ New Water Use and Fracking Study

A recent report by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) – which finds that water usage for hydraulic fracturing varies across different basins in the United States, and that water use has ramped up as domestic oil and natural gas production has skyrocketed – has garnered a number of articles this week that are missing important perspective and context.

The reality is that as natural gas production has increased, water use overall has plummeted, because electricity from natural gas generation requires so much less water than other energy sources.  That was actually the conclusion of a recently released report by Climate Central:

“Water withdrawals for power generation dropped by more than 1.5 trillion gallons per year in Ohio, New York, and Illinois; 10 states had decreases of 1 trillion gallons or more. Electricity generated from natural gas increased 370 percent on average in those 10 states, with the largest absolute increases coming in Alabama and New York.”

The Climate Central report continues,

“[F]racking to produce gas typically requires 3 to 5 million gallons of water per fracked well, and significant concerns have been raised about local environmental impacts of fracking fluids that are a mix of water and chemicals. However, in terms of water quantity, fracking consumes a relatively insignificant volume of water…” (emphasis added)

Climate Central’s report echoes a report from the University of Texas, which found that hydraulic fracturing is actually helping to shield Texas from water shortages because it is allowing the state to move away from using more water intensive energy resources.

Further, even if a well requires several million gallons, the amount of water used for hydraulic fracturing across the United States is still only a fraction of one percent of total water use.   Agriculture, car washes and golf courses use billions of gallons more water than oil and gas producers.  Even in the states that USGS says have the most water use – like Pennsylvania and Texas  – fracking still only uses a fraction of a percent of each state’s total water use.

That fraction is being reduced even further as companies continue to develop new technologies to mitigate their water footprints.  According to the Pennsylvania DEP, producers in the Marcellus are now recycling 90 percent of their flowback water.  And, as EID’s Steve Everley put it in a recent column,

Though fracking in the U.S. represents only a fraction of a percent of nationwide water consumption, companies are actively developing and using new technologies to reduce water use—a story of success that has unfortunately not been told enough.

For example, Apache, a major operator in west Texas, is using brackish and recycled produced water for its drilling and fracking operations “without competing for scarce freshwater supplies.” According to Reuters, the company has recycled more than 1.2 million barrels of produced water. Apache sources some of its water from the Santa Rosa aquifer, whose waters are unsuitable for human consumption or agriculture.

Pioneer Natural Resources—another large operator in west Texas—is purchasing wastewater from the city of Odessa to use in its local oil and gas operations. The company’s contract with the city not only provides additional funding for public services, but also reduces the amount of water that must be pumped from underground. Anadarko has a similar agreement with the city of Aurora in Colorado.

Not only that, but producers are also coming up with innovative solutions to help other water users, namely farmers.  In California – America’s third largest energy producing state – water that is extracted as part of oil production is treated and recycled and used for agriculture.  Last year, Kern County energy producers provided more than 10 billion gallons of water to the agriculture industry to help farmers feeling the brunt of the drought.  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.”

When headlines proclaim that water use for hydraulic fracturing is going up significantly, without providing the important context, readers are left with the wrong impression.  The reality is that water use in the oil and gas industry is a success story that is not told enough, and the innovations taking place by producers have only just begun.

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